The first time you pass by the troll in the box you kind of try not to see it.
It's gross as fuck when people do this. You guess maybe it's better than driving them out into the country and dumping them to make it on their own, or those stories you've heard about people dumping unwanted wrigglers in sacks into rivers--those you try not to think about because fuck, that is not okay on any level but it's not like you can do shit about it.
It's a small troll. Way smaller than most--a runt probably, and its horns are tiny little round nubs almost hidden in its shock of black hair. And--oh, right. Okay. Yeah. You get why it's in a box on the side of the street, free
to good home: it's crying a little, and the stains on its small round grey face are a color they shouldn't be.
Of course it has no idea why it's been dumped here. It watches the people pass by uncomprehendingly. You try not to think that it's waiting for its person to come back.
You turn up the volume on your ipod and hunch into your jacket against the chilly drizzle that's begun to fall and you pass on. You can't fix the fucking world. God knows it needs it, but you're a DJ, not a politician, you can't make it illegal for people to do things like this.
Your set that evening is not among your best.
You're a little drunk when you leave the club. Your friends offer to share a cab but honestly you could kind of use the fresh air right now after hours in the hot noisy smoky atmosphere: it's raining, but you've never minded rain. You mind bright sunlight. That hurts your eyes.
And by now you're good enough to get gigs in places like this one, where you can actually walk back to your place without carrying anything too illegal in case someone tries shit. It's a weird feeling not to have to constantly be on your guard; it makes you paradoxically more aware of your surroundings in aesthetic terms rather than as potential sources of danger. So it is that you can hear the little quiet whimpers under the sound of the rain, and you think: that's not a good sound, someone is really unhappy, and then you realize where you are and what's making it.
Oh, fuck. It's still there.
The little troll from this afternoon is still there in its box, and you can just about still read what someone had scrawled on it in magic marker: UNWANTED FREE UGLY TROLL.
Maybe it's the vodka or maybe it's just that you're a gigantic fucking pushover, which your brother always pointed out, but you can't not go across the street to where it's still standing in its now extremely soggy box. The hair is plastered to its head and you can see that the horns are really very small indeed, and rounded. Unsatisfactory horns.
It looks up at you with big eyes, the pupils huge in the darkness, and it mewls and you can see it shivering, and...
Well, fuck Bro and fuck his rules and fuck the fact that this is an intensely dumb spur-of-the-moment thing to do but you just cannot walk away. If any version of you walked away you would have to go beat his ass the fuck up because this is wrong, this is just simply fucking wrong, and you reach down to lift the little troll out of the box.
It's heavy---no, he's heavy despite his diminutive size: you know they're denser, more compact than humans. He hangs in your hands like a soggy rag doll, too cold even to shiver.
You unzip your jacket and tuck him inside, and sluggishly his small hands close on folds of your shirt, and he presses close to you--fuck, he's freezing, fuck--and you give the soggy remains of his box a kick to attempt to relieve some of your feelings, and hold your small cold wet acquisition against your chest as you hurry the rest of the way home.
"What the fuck," Bro says, when you show him what you're holding. "What the fuck. Dave. You can't keep a troll, jesus christ, what are you even thinking? Where did you find it?"
"In a box in the rain on the side of the street." He's still clinging to your shirt, small squinched grey face buried against you. "He was there all night. He's fucking freezing, Bro. I couldn't leave him."
You think Bro is about to say something else, but just then the little troll sneezes, a tiny little utterly pathetic sound, and you see his shoulders slump. Gotcha.
"God damn it," he says. "You are doing the care and feeding. This is your responsibility, little man, not mine. That understood?"
"Fuck," he sighs. "It figures. My little brother not only brings home a troll, but he brings home the smallest most pathetic little runt of a troll I ever did see. Look at those horns. Fucking disgraceful."
You try not to smile, because now under the tone you can hear the same warmth he used when he would berate your dumb ass for stuff he really didn't mind all that much.
It is harder than you expected to detach your troll from your shirt. When you do pry him free he cries, and aw, fuck, that is a terrible noise, that is the sort of noise you do not ever want to hear, and you're about to helplessly hug him tight again when Bro leans in to ruffle his sodden hair. That seems to puzzle the shit out of him for long enough that the pair of you can get him undressed and into the tub--and once in the hot water he flails briefly and then settles, looking comically astounded.
He doesn't like soap, but then you kind of get that, it makes no sense, it stings eyes and tastes horrible, and obviously he is not the happiest of trolls while you and Bro get him cleaned up, but once he's out of the bath and wrapped in a towel he chills out and does this critically adorable yawn that shows lots and lots of tiny not-very-sharp teeth.
"He needs to go get...like...checked out," you say, not looking up from this edifying sight. "He might be sick or something."
"He needs his shots at least."
"Ugh, shots." You instinctively hold the towel-troll bundle closer to your chest. "I guess. He might be...what, microchipped or something, but fuck if I'm gonna give him back to whoever put him in that box."
Bro is putting his leather gloves back on, after the bath, and looks down at your armful. "Hey, little dude," he says, almost kinder than you have ever fucking heard him. "You got a name?"
Oh. That's right. They can do language.
The troll blinks great big eyes up at the pair of you and makes a sort of purry chirpy rattly noise that sounds a lot like "Krrkat."
And then he sneezes tinily again, and okay, yeah, there is no way at all you are going to not keep this little guy. You think Bro probably feels the same by the way he gives your shoulder a hard, brief squeeze with one callused hand.
Okay. You have a troll.
You have a troll. What the fuck do you do next?
you wanted more
I GIVE YOU MORE
Yeah so that vet/doctor/whatever visit is a thing that needs to happen.
You had done some quick and dirty internet research to figure out what trolls need by way of, like, beds and stuff, and most of it was unhelpful and had to do with training them to behave, but you'd made Krrkt a sort of pile of soft plushy things that in absolutely no way were remotely disturbing in the least and he seemed to be okay with wriggling into the pile and closing his eyes and giving this tiny little sigh that makes your chest hurt all over again.
Poor little guy. You still want to find out who did this and stab bits of them that don't grow back.
You're woken up around four in the morning by a sort of unhappy snuffling-wheezing and something bonking against your chin, and oh, hey, what the fuck, somehow your troll has crawled out of his pile and up the heap of random crap to your bed and is pushing his tiny horns against you. "Oh, hey, hey, shh, little dude, shh, what the fuck, it's like...way early...awww, shit." He's warm to your touch now, where before he'd been frighteningly cold, and his hair is damp with sweat and he's breathing sort of hard with a little weird bubbling wheeze and oh, fuck, you were right, he's sick, he's actually sick. You fumble for the light and then realize their eyes are probably as sensitive to that shit as yours, and so you just sit up against the headboard and scoop him up to rest his head against your shoulder.
He kind of sounds the way you remember feeling before you moved here, when you were a kid. How goddamn hard it had been to suck in air sometimes on the hottest days, how your chest had made weird gross noises and there had been fucked-up tests in some clinic or other where they'd made you blow into this thing and then scowled at you and made you do it again. Fuck that, they aren't going to do that to Krrkt, but you can definitely tell he needs some help.
You try to remember what had made you feel better. Mostly just...being told it wasn't gonna suck forever, that you'd be able to breathe again soon. You don't really know how good this little dude's grasp of language is, but you hold him and you rub his back and say stuff, hoping maybe some of it will sink in. "It's okay. It's okay, I got you, I know it sucks huge ridiculous donkey balls right now but we'll fix you up, I promise. I promise."
He coughs, a nasty wet ineffective sound, and you can't not press your face briefly against the hard little vault of his head, between the nubby horns. "Yeah, I know that feel. I know. I'm just....sorry I didn't get there sooner, I guess. Not like I knew you were still there or anything but....fuck, I'm rambling. I'm not being smooth. You will never remember this moment, got that?"
The horns are so weird. They've always puzzled you--are they, like, what, bone? Like antlers? Do they come off when trolls grow? But these are sort of satiny-warm like well-worn wood, dark rust at the base shading to golden-yellow at the rounded tips, and when you touch one of them he shivers all over and you think you've hurt him.
"--Hey, shit, I'm sorry, I--"
But he nudges under your hand, the same little demanding gesture as a cat wanting to be stroked, and you go back to the horn and give it a very careful stroke with a fingertip.
You didn't know trolls purred.
It still sounds bad, hoarse and congested and rumbly, but you think he's happier now. Resigning yourself to not getting any more sleep tonight, you pull the blankets up around both of you and settle against your pillows still half-sitting up, your troll flopped against your chest. In fact you've begun to drift when he says something you don't quite understand.
"Hmm?" His small hands are still fisted in your shirt: you think you could stand up and he'd still be attached.
"Aev," he says again. Suddenly you realize what he's doing, and this completely bizarre sensation like a valve suddenly spilling over in your chest shocks you breathless.
"Dave," you say, when you can. "I'm Dave."
He has a little trouble with the D, but after a couple more repetitions he's comfortable that you're Daevh and he's Krrkt. Although jesus would it kill trollkind to buy a couple vowels, seriously. "How about Karkat? That's way easier to say."
He wriggles fiercely up to bonk his head under your chin and cling. Nubby horns prod your jawbone.
"...Karkat, okay. I can handle that. I can make that work."
In the morning you're heavy-eyed and yawning and Bro is offensively awake. You settle at the breakfast table with Karkat still clinging to you, although this time he's clinging to a different shirt: you'd detached him gently once he fell back asleep to go shower and put on real clothes, and you think he hadn't woken to find himself alone. You hope.
When you lurch with your passenger into the kitchen Bro is making coffee already. "Hey," you say. "I think he really does need to go to the doctor. Or the vet. Or whatever."
Bro stops whistling something ironic and comes over to rest the back of his fingers against Karkat's cheek. "--Fuck, yeah, he's pretty warm. He wake you up?"
"Now you know what it's like," he says, and fucks up your hair with a well-placed ruffle. You give him the finger with your free hand and he grins a pointy grin. "--Okay. I'll call the place my friend works at, drive you over there, but you gotta make your own way back, little man."
"If I can't fucking handle a cab ride across town at my age you shoulda unscrewed my head years ago, dude," you tell him, and he grins and proceeds to molest your 'do a second time--but he's looking down at the little troll clinging to you, and for a very brief moment his hand rests on your shoulder again and you think: fuck, is this what he felt, what he feels, is this even a shattered tiny fucking fragment of what he feels because how, how the hell did he ever fucking survive?
You will never ever have kids.
Together the two of you get some sips of weak tea into Karkat, and some little bits of toast, you looked that up, they can have bread stuff in moderation. He's so...sleepy, so heavy against you, and his breathing is doing that weird gross bubbly-wheezy thing; neither of you want to linger too long over breakfast, and soon enough you're settled in the passenger seat of Bro's ironically boring Buick and on your way to the clinic his friend works at. The guy she works for is this weird dude with long hair and a fucked-up sense of propriety. Dr. Zaius. No, Dr. Zahhak.
You just hope he can fix your troll.
You get a couple weird looks when you walk into the clinic's waiting room. Pretty much everyone else there has ordinary pets, dogs, cats, one lady has what looks like a goddamn ferret in a cat carrier (it's hissing and spitting and doing its best to make itself the center of attention) and you, Dave Strider, are the only one with a troll attached to you like a growth.
Karkat had spent the ride over with his face pressed against your shoulder, snuffling; he gives the room a single unhappy glance and goes right back to apparently trying to burrow inside you. It'd be easier if Bro coulda come in with you, he's the one with a connection at this place but he had to scoot to make it to his actual job on time. (He's had an actual job for like six months now and it still weirds you out not to have him home all the fucking time doing weird shit in his room with smuppets, even if you think you probably sleep better these days.)
The lady at the counter--big glasses with pink frames, freckles, loads of dark hair--blinks at you when you go up to sign in, and then does a double-take when she sees your last name. "Oh! You must be Dirk's brother."
Eyebrow. You know exactly how far you have to lift it before it shows up over the rims of your shades, but unfortunately the effect is somewhat ruined because your passenger starts to cough and you have to try and soothe him. "--Yeah. Dave. Um. You guys do deal with trolls, right?"
"Yes, of course--poor little thing, how long has he been ill?"
"I don't...exactly know," you admit. "I only found him last night. He was, kind of, um, abandoned?" Shit, you don't know how much he can really understand, and you don't want to say things that'll make the little guy any more unhappy. "I think he's running a fever."
The lady nods, writing something down on a clipboard. "Well, there's two people ahead of you, but I'll let Dr. Zahhak know and see if he can have a quick look. Go ahead and have a seat."
Zahhak does not look like a vet. For one thing, he's built like a goddamn truck, muscles lunging out all over the place under his black scrubs like belligerent slugs; for another, he's still got the rock-star long black hair you remember from the first and only time you ever saw the guy. It's tied back in a tight ponytail, but you can tell that unbound it'd reach at least halfway down his back. He's got little rectangular specs on with that weird cast to the lenses that tells you they're probably photogrey (you had those, once, a long time ago, and they never worked right and looked dorky as fuck on top of it, so you just went with regular old contacts and your shades). And wow, he fucking scowls when he sees Karkat. That's a scowl you find it pretty hard to stand straight and unwavering in front of.
"Far be it from me," he says, in a very deep rumbly voice that you think would be pretty fun to mix with, "to wish ill on my fellow humans, but at times I would dearly love to give some of them a thumping. Ms. Peixes said you found him abandoned?"
"Yeah. Um. In the rain. In a...a box."
Zahhak's formidable brows draw closer together. "I see. Well, let's have a look."
For all his bulk his purple-nitrile hands are very gentle as he unhooks Karkat from your shirt over the latter's protestations. When he's placed on the vet's exam table, your troll huddles up in a tiny ball, shivering, and wow it is super fucking hard not to scoop him right back up in your arms.
Zahhak fetches a stethoscope from a drawer--not the blue one he's got hooked round his neck, but a slightly different grey one with a weird-shaped bell--and has a listen to Karkat's back, still frowning. "Mm. Has he eaten since you found him?"
"We got some bits of toast into him this morning, but otherwise just like water. Didn't seem all that hungry."
Nod. "Right. He's dehydrated, for one thing, and I'd say this is too well advanced to have set in just in the past twenty-four hours. I expect he's probably been carrying it around for a while."
Karkat seems to have been expecting something much more unpleasant than having his back touched by a funny thing on a tube, and is slowly starting to unhuddle and look around. He's obviously still frightened, but things don't seem as bad as they had looked at first.
"We'll do some cultures, run some bloodwork, figure out what else is going on in there. By the look of the horns he's likely to be hemanomalous, you do know that, right?"
"Off the regular spectrum. It's a form of mutation."
"Oh. Um. Yeah. He's, like, bright red." You can't forget the little red tearstains. "Is he going to be okay, though? He sounds...kind of bad. He woke me up last night wheezing like hell."
Zahhak straightens up and looks from the little lump of troll on his table to you, and back again, and just then Karkat reaches out for the dangling bell of the stethoscope and tugs on it experimentally. Whatever the vet had been about to say is lost under what looks to be a totally unpremeditated smile: it lights his whole face, transforms his eyes under those weird specs, makes him look less forbidding and more like a person you could perhaps trust to fix someone.
The rest of the exam is pretty hard on you. Again, you think, fuck, if this is only a shade of what Bro had to go through when you were a dumb little kid and had the flu or fell out of a jungle gym or whatever, how did he stand it? How does anybody stand it?
Zahhak weighs, measures, draws a couple of tiny vials of blood the same color as your own, sticks a thermometer carefully in one small grey ear, coaxes Karkat to open his mouth for a throat swab--oh, fuck, you remember those too, they're evil--and runs the scanner over him for any sign of a microchip or a tracker tat. Nothing. By the time he's done Karkat is crying, which makes him cough, which doesn't help with the crying, and you are frankly about to lose your shit in a very unStriderlike fashion when the vet steadies your troll with an enormous hand on his back and shooshes him.
You blink. So does Karkat, through his tears, and when Zahhak's hand starts to move in little gentle circles on his back, the hiccups and coughs start to even out. Zahhak goes on rubbing carefully until Karkat's eyelids begin to droop and he gives one of those little sighs that do stupid shit to your insides.
"He's got a nasty case of bronchitis," Zahhak says, matter-of-factly, "which we need to make sure doesn't turn into pneumonia. I need to run the tests to see what's causing it, but I very much doubt this is bacterial, so antibiotics won't do any good and might upset his digestive system. Supportive therapy is the thing. You need to keep him warm and quiet and well hydrated, get as much nutrition into him as you can, use NSAIDs to keep the inflammation and discomfort under control. I'll write you a scrip for an expectorant to help him clear out his chest. Don't give him cough suppressants, but a spoonful of honey won't hurt and can make him a bit less unhappy."
Gah, you remember some of this, and it probably shows on your face despite the shades, because Zahhak's voice is tinged with sympathy when he speaks again. "I predict we won't find any evidence of prior immunization when we look at his blood, but I want to wait until he's over this before I give him his jabs. Have you ever cared for a troll before?"
"No," you admit. He nods.
"We do have some basic literature--you've probably already found the same answers online--but you're welcome to take that away with you." He gives Karkat's back a last little rub and lets him go, taking off the troll stethoscope and his purple gloves. "By my estimation he's quite young--not just small, young--and he needs a lot of care and attention, especially after what's happened to him. Are you prepared for that?"
You look from Karkat up to the vet and probably again you have failed to conceal your expression: he nods. "I thought so. Watch his temperature. Trolls' body temperature varies slightly based on their blood caste: he's about as hot as they go, normally maybe a degree over human baseline, but right now he's pushing 100.8. Keep an eye on that: if it gets over 103, sponge him down with room-temperature water and call the clinic. --I've stopped," he adds, to Karkat, who looks up at him with great big solemn eyes. In daylight you can see the grey irises. Last night they'd just been black pools, but now you can see the pupils expanding and contracting as he looks around. "You have been very good."
Karkat blinks, and tilts his head. "Yes, you," says Zahhak, with actual laughter in his voice. "You are a good troll, Karkat. Be told."
He's still leaning on the table with one hand and is obviously surprised when Karkat squirms over to...aw, jesus fuck, look at that, your troll is hugging the vet's wrist.
You take him home--he falls asleep in the cab--and get him settled in the pile, warmly covered with blankets, and go to find something nourishing and not neon orange or aerosol-propelled to feed him. Before you've got halfway through stirring chicken noodle soup on the stove, though, something coughs in the kitchen doorway and he's standing there dragging the blanket after him.
"Daev?" he says, rubbing at his eyes with a tiny fist.
Fuuuuuuuck how does anybody bear this, ever? You turn the burner down and go to pick him up, and he instantly clings to you, wrapping his arms and legs tightly round you and resting his face against your neck. "Daev," he says again, muffled.
"Shoosh, I'm here, I got you," you say, and wow, you are going to feel this in your back tomorrow, he's not as lightweight as he might be, but you can't put him down, not now. "I got you, little dude. All will be cool and all will be cool and all manner of thing will be cool."
"Coo," Karkat repeats, and sighs, and after a moment or two his breathing eases, steadies out into sleep.
You're not entirely sure what wakes you, lying curled in a knot on your bed: Karkat had refused to let go of you to climb into his pile, so you'd held him until he was asleep and then carefully relocated him, poor little guy, he'd had a long nasty day.
You stare blearily into your pillows. Your contacts are those extended-wear types you don't have to take out to sleep, so you can more or less blink shit into focus as you listen to the voice coming from the hallway beyond your closed door. Voices at night in the dark always sound more sinister than they are.
It's Bro. Fuck. He doesn't sound like a dude who's having a nice calming evening. You roll over and prop yourself up on your elbows, listening.
"--wait, just....fuck. Jesus fuck. Can you...yeah, okay. Yeah. Yeah. Just email me directions. I'm getting my coat on right now."
That's not the laid-back Bro you know. That's a dude who has just got some serious news.
You slither out of bed, padding carefully past Karkat's pile so as not to wake him, and slip out to the hallway. The bright light hurts your eyes and you squint, wincing, to see your brother hauling on a leather jacket and going to fetch the Buick's keys.
"Hey," you say. "What's going on?"
You give that the look it deserves.
"Fuck. Fine. I just got a call from Jade, okay? My friend at that vet place? She just closed up after everyone left and started home and outside the city she found another little troll on the side of the road."
Cold lead shot pours into the pit of your stomach. "...Another one?"
"'s what I said." Bro settles his hat on his spiked hair. "Little yellowblood. Looks like a psionic, she said, but...it's not in good shape. And Dr Z's car's in the shop so he can't get to the clinic on his own, so I'ma go pick him up and get him there."
"I'm coming with," you say.
"The hell you are."
You're about to protest when he jerks a thumb and you have to look over your shoulder to see Karkat in the (hilariously ironic) kiddie PJs you'd picked up for him that afternoon. Your troll is blearily leaning against the bedroom door and rubbing at his face. "...Daev?"
"See?" Bro says. "You got your own stuff to handle." You're sure he would have said 'shit' were Karkat not right there. "Little guy's not well, he needs someone to see to him. I'll call, okay?"
Karkat sneezes, and sniffles, and when you turn to him he lifts his little arms: an obvious, imperious, undeniable demand of UP.
"Okay, okay, jeez," you say, scooping him up and balancing him more or less on a hip. Fuck, is this why girls have sticky-out hips, to carry stuff on? That actually makes sense. "--Yeah, call. And, I dunno. Good luck or something."
Bro's mouth does a weird thing you can't identify and he comes over to fuck up your hair the way he fucks up your hair on a regular basis, but you sort of lean a little into the touch, and he sort of doesn't pull away, and for a moment you're leaning against him, your head against his chest, and he gives your back a small but manly swat before he lets you go. "Go back to bed, twerplings. I'll let you know what the deal is."
You nod, instead of coming up with something clever to say, and then Karkat coughs and you have to turn all your attention to him, poor little guy, he's only been sleeping in fits and starts. Dr. Z's stuff seemed to help a bit earlier, loosening all the gross shit in his chest: you look at your phone to check the time and yeah, he can have another dose. By now you're pretty resigned to another no-real-sleep night.
With Karkat still balanced on your hip you go to nuke a big mug of water in the microwave and add lemon juice from the plastic fake lemon in the fridge, and then a splash of really shitty brandy that Bro keeps for just such recipes, and some cinnamon and ginger, and then you get out the honey and spoon it lavishly into the mug. Shit takes forever to dissolve properly and by then it's no longer hot, so you give it another ten seconds on high and then taste it yourself.
Not bad. Another splash of brandy and some more lemon, and you got yourself a nice soothing drink. You put the spoon in the sink and carry your troll and your hot toddy back to the dim comfort of your bedroom.
You manage about three hours of sleep, on and off, drifting with Karkat settled in your lap on the bed and then waking as he curled over in another helpless little hacking fit. You found after the third time this happened that tapping his back with the side of your hand seemed to help him; that's another thing you remember dimly, being tapped rhythmically with someone's hands in some pink and blue exam room in some unknowable clinic somewhere.
It wears him out, poor little guy, and when the fits let go he's happy enough to sag back against you and sip carefully at your honey-lemon mixture. Somewhere around two in the morning he frightens you a bit, convulsing in a really violent coughing fit--shit, he's so small, how can this be so damn powerful--but he claws at the box of tissues you've brought him, you pat his back, and after another unpleasant moment or two you can hear the difference in his breathing.
Fuck, you are tired. You let him wriggle around to cling to you and rest his head under your chin, and you stroke his back, and the next thing you know daylight is pouring through the windows and your eyes hurt.
Bro gets back while you're trying to get Karkat to eat his nourishing eggs--the shit Dr. Z's clinic had given you said that protein is a big deal, listed a whole bunch of things you should try to feed him, but he's clearly feeling improved to the point where it's hilarious to make a gigantic mess instead of getting any goddamn food inside him. You think he has scrambled egg in his hair, for fuck's sake. He is exceedingly lucky that you are capable of scrambling an egg in the first place, that shit is haute fucking cuisine chez Strider.
They'd told you he was very young. Like, equivalent of a little human kid young. And if he's been owned by the kind of dipshits who would leave him in a fucking box on the side of the road--your knuckles go briefly white where you're holding the edge of the table--it's not surprising that he's not all that verbal. You're gonna have to do stuff like try to teach him words.
God, this is terrifying. But it's stupidly good to see him looking less sick and weary.
The keys rattle in the front door and you turn to see Bro coming in with his jacket over his shoulder and yellow stains all down his shirt. Looks like someone shot him with a paintball gun armed with mustard. He's not wearing his hat and his hair is drooping out of its normal spikes, and, shit, you think he looks old.
"Hey," he says, and dumps his keys in the bowl on the counter. "You better have made coffee, kid."
"You know it." Uncharacteristically you take the initiative to go fetch a mug for him: he likes mad amounts of sugar and no milk. "Here. What the fuck happened?"
"Long story." Bro drops into a chair, and after a moment reaches over to ruffle Karkat's hair, egg bits and all. "Wow, little dude, you look better. Messy, but better."
"He's gotta work on how to eat food instead of getting it all over himself." You take advantage of the troll's distraction to pop another spoonful of egg in his mouth. "Shameful, man. So tell me the long story."
He tells you the long story.
"I get there in a hurry but Zahhak's already waiting when I pull up. He's...fuck, he's, like, I guess forgotten to tie up his hair so it's all over the goddamn place, he looks like some kind of anime idol. I take him to the clinic. Drop him outside, go find somewhere to park. When I get back they've got the troll on the table and they're..."
Bro gulps coffee. "He's really small. Like, Karkat small, but way skinnier. All bones. And someone's done bad shit to him--and he's sparking a little bit, these weird blue and red sparks, I guess those are the psionics. Zahhak sort of tenses up and everyone in the room does a fadestep away from him but he chills out, gets it under control, tells Jade to do some medical shit while he scrubs up. She's...she's kinda messed up about this."
"I bet," you say, not really interrupting.
"I'm useless at this point so I just kinda...fade back and lean against the wall." Bro rubs at his face, and you can see the kid he used to be and the man he'll be in just a couple more years and aw, shit, you are not up for all these feels after no sleep.
He starts to talk again and you stop thinking and let him tell you the story.
"Harley, get the imager powered up, I think this is just a sprain but I need to be sure before I start tying it up. And I want a quick look at a facial view, I really hope his cheekbone's not cracked." The skinny little bundle of troll on Zahhak's table has been anesthetized, with Jade watching his vitals real close on a monitor. The beeps of his heartbeat are rapid but steady. "Broken ribs, too, and he's malnourished as hell. You're going to have to spend a lot of time with this one."
"I know." Jade looks up at her boss, face set. She's got yellow troll blood all over her shirt, and now so does Bro, from the hug she'd thrown at him. "Otherwise I wouldn't have brought him here, I know. I'm prepared."
Zahhak just nods, and runs his enormous square fingertips very lightly over the troll's limbs. He rumbles something under his breath and it sounds as if he's promising harm to whoever did this; listening, Bro thinks this is a sentiment he can totally grok.
Luckily it looks as if there's no fractures other than the ribs. Zahhak treats the various cuts and abrasions, sponging away that weird yellow blood, and then straps up tiny troll ribs and a tiny troll wrist. The bones are so fine, so fragile. Karkat's tiny but he's much denser, compact; this little one is spun glass by comparison. In Zahhak's hands he looks like a damaged doll.
After the injuries are seen to, Jade and Zahhak set up drip feeds: fluids, antibiotics--some of the cuts are pretty deep, and they'd all needed cleaning--and painkillers. Jade had said he'd been curled up in a ball clutching his head, and Zahhak had said something about psionics being prone to headaches.
They get the troll into what's pretty much a sort of incubator, with the monitors still attached, and Zahhak straightens up. "That's all we can do for now. Harley--"
"I'm staying," she says. "I'll crash on the couch in the office. I already called Jake, he's watching Bec."
"Very well. But I want you functional tomorrow. Don't stay up all night staring at your patient."
She looks as if she'd been planning to do just that, and sighs. "Okay. But I'm not going anywhere. If he's stable tomorrow can I take him home with me?"
"I should think so. Your dog won't be a problem?"
"Bec loves kids, I don't see why he'd be any different about trolls."
Zahhak just nods. "Right. I think we're done here. --Strider?"
Bro detaches himself from the wall. "Yeah."
"Can I prevail upon you to give me a ride back? Hopefully the wretched car place will be done with my car tomorrow at some point."
"Course," Bro says. He's tired as hell, splotched with troll blood, and weirded out beyond measure, but he can still drive.
"I appreciate this more than I can say." Zahhak strips off his gloves, tosses them, looks glumly at his own shirt--also mottled yellow. "And I hope this is the end of this business."
You're done with eggs by the time Bro finishes, and are busy sort of trying to clean up the disaster area that is the table. "Jesus," you say. "But he's gonna be okay? The little yellowblood?"
"Zahhak seemed to think so. And Harley was pretty damn determined. I figure if nothing else she'll make him recover." Bro yawns. "You, on the other hand, look pretty good, little dude." He addresses this last to Karkat, who is looking around big-eyed at the strange environment of your kitchen. (There is a smuppet on top of the microwave and a collection of shitty swords under the sink, and God knows what random crap in the fridge. You have ceased trying to make sense of this.)
Karkat reaches over with a small grey hand and pokes at his shirt, where the yellow bloodstains have dried stiff. "Bo?" he inquires.
Bro blinks and looks down at himself. "Huh? --Oh. Oh, hey, no, it's okay, that's not mine. And the guy whose blood it is is gonna be fine. Everything's okay."
Karkat doesn't look convinced, giving his shirt another poke. Bro sighs and lifts up the hem to display his untouched abs. "See? All good."
That seems to satisfy. "Bo okay," Karkat pronounces, and yawns. You put a glass of apple juice down in front of him, and he tries a sip and then promptly guzzles down the rest; Bro looks at you over his small tousled head and grins a tired grin.
"Definitely a Strider," you say, and he nods.
Karkat sleeps through the night, thank all the godlets. He'd been enthusiastic and energetic all day and crashed briefly in midafternoon, almost mid-mischief, but when you carry him to his pile at eight p.m. he doesn't protest very much, and he's soon curled around some unfortunately jutting puppet rears and covered warmly with blankets.
You sleep yourself, and it's weird to wake up without someone clutching you, without horns bonking your chin. You immediately have to wriggle out of bed and go check him--okay, good. Good. He's just asleep. He hasn't managed to randomly choke on anything and he's not feverish and...yeah, okay. Good.
Rubbing your eyes, you stalk out to the kitchen. Yesterday was weird as fuck; after Bro came home he'd been on and off the phone and you hadn't really wanted to interrupt, plus you had your hands full with Karkat, who had apparently decided that now he could breathe properly he was going to explore ALL of the apartment, especially the bits with sharp edges. You'd had to follow him around and scoop him up before he could get hold of any shitty anime swords or shuriken or what have you, and then console him for the lack of self-destructive toys by bouncing him up and down on your nonexistent hip--and eventually just blasting Rammstein. Little dude really got jamming to Sonne.
Bro had been out most of the night; he's home now, and when you get to the kitchen he's already draped over the table with a mug in his hands, breathing in the steam. Without a word you go help yourself to the Mister Coffee. "Shitty night?"
Bro looks up: he's...fuck, he's not wearing his shades, and his orange eyes are bright against the bags underneath. "Eh. Not so bad. You get any sleep yourself?"
"Yeah, he chilled out and actually slept for like seven fucking hours. Amazing."
He chuckles. "Yeah. When that happens you want to open a bottle of champagne. This too shall pass."
"Was I really that much of a little shit?"
"Nah. You were a kid. They're all little shits, it's like par for the course. At least you're dealing with someone who isn't gonna have to, like, get into higher education, you can just do whatever to get him what he needs without worryin' about his Future Prospects." Bro rubs at his face. "Fuck. I shouldn't a said that."
"It's cool," you say, and mean it. "I didn't...even really get what the fuck you were dealing with until, like, yesterday. It's cool."
Bro looks up at you, shadowed eyes the color of fresh tangerines, and you can't help grinning. "Yo. I appreciate you, dude. Okay?"
"...Okay," he agrees, and reaches out to swat you. "Since you're up get the fuckin' skillet hot again and put some more pancakes on, I made enough for me and that's it."
"Oh, shit, now I'm your lackey too? You and Karkles are obviously plotting." You're already measuring flour into a mixing bowl: pancakes are one thing Bro can do, and do well. He's taught you. "We got anything good to put in this?"
He looks shifty.
"...Come on, what are you hidin'?"
Shifty times a hundred, and then he hauls his carcass out the kitchen chair and goes to open a drawer in the sideboard. "One of the dudes I did work for on his album was Canadian, can you believe it? He was like, here, give this shit a taste." He hands over a tiny box of maple-sugar candy.
Which is your weakness. "Holy shit, Bro."
"I know, I know. But I figured I'd save this for some time when you needed it." He gives you that slight twist of the lips that you know is the Bro version of a broad grin.
You can't at all help beaming like a fucking moron, and open the packet and take out two of the maple leaves, four still in their little nests. "I'm being grown-up about this, notice?"
"I'm noticing. You want to put the others in a bag to stop 'em drying out."
"I know." You're crushing the maple candies and the rich smell fills your head and you are so stupidly happy, so fucking happy for no good reason at all, and when you've mixed them in with your batter you put the spoon down and go to wrap your arms around his narrow waist and hug him hard enough to elicit a grunt.
"What the--" he says, but you shake your head, still pressing your face against his shoulder, and then his arms close around you and hold you tight, almost tight enough to hurt, for a moment.
When he lets you go you feel light, stupidly light, lighter than air, and you drift back over to your bowl and go on mixing in the maple sugar and a shake or two of nutmeg before going back to making pancakes. And you can feel him watching you--for once not a judgmental kind of watching so much as a fond regard.
"I cannot be having with this," says Zahhak, looking down at the pathetic sight sitting on his exam table. Jade looks guilty as fuck, but he flicks a glance at her that seems to undo that.
"I absolutely--" he unbuttons the troll's shirt carefully--"cannot--" he slides the bell of the specialist scope up under the open shirt, over the bandages--"keep on like this. Deep breaths, please?"
There's a little spitting spark that had to hurt Zahhak, but he just carefully moves the bell of the troll stethoscope across Sollux's back. "No deep congestion, I'd say this is very likely a bad allergic reaction to Bec. Did it start when Jade brought you home?"
This earns him a blink from mismatched blank eyes and another couple of sparks, but the troll nods, after a moment, and sniffles.
"Did you know you were allergic?"
Another small nod. Jade bites her lip. "Oh, jeez, I'm sorry! I didn't know, you should've said something..."
"Be quiet, Tholluckth," Sollux says. His voice is thin, like the rest of him, and currently a wheezy, teary mess. "Thhut up, Tholluckth. Don't make noithe, Tholluckth. You're a nuithanthe, Tholluckth."
Jade makes an unhappy little noise. "Is that what they told you in your last home?"
"Well, it's rubbish." Zahhak's voice is steady, although his knuckles are bone-white and it's possible his grip on the edge of the stainless-steel table is leaving finger-dents. "You don't have to worry about them anymore, and you don't have to keep quiet about things that make you ill. --Jade, give me twenty-five mg of diphenhydramine, let's at least get him more comfortable."
She hurries to obey. Sollux wipes at his face with the hand that isn't wrapped in supportive bandages, sniffling, and winces away from the needle, squinching his eyes shut. "I know, it's not very nice, but this will be over in a moment and you'll be able to breathe better. Have you been to see a doctor before?"
"Did they give you any injections?" Zahhak is quick with the syringe, and as gentle as he can be.
Little one-shouldered shrug; he's still got his eyes tight shut.
"Well, you bore that very bravely." He caps the needle and drops it in the red sharps box; Sollux opens his eyes, looking puzzled, and then stares at his shoulder, obviously having expected much more drama and discomfort. "--All done. You ought to start feeling less miserable shortly. But I don't think you can stay with Jade if you're this allergic to dogs."
"No, no, no, pleathe," Sollux splutters, and flings himself at Jade, who catches him and hugs him tight. "Pleathe don't make me go back."
"Oh, God," says Zahhak, almost to himself, and there are in fact finger-dents in the edge of the table. "No. No, you don't have to go back to your old home, not that I feel it deserves the title of home in the slightest. You're safe, Sollux, you're not ever going to have to go back there. We just need to work out who you'll stay with, that's all."
"Not ever?" His voice is muffled in Jade's shirt.
"Not ever. I promise."
The troll seems to droop in relief, as if this concern had been a string holding him taut, and then bursts into yellow tears.
You're watching TV with Karkat curled up in your lap occasionally pointing out things to you--he seems to be getting his language on pretty fast now that he's started--when Bro wanders through on his way to the kitchen, talking on his phone. "Oh, shit, really? Poor little guy. I thought Bec was one of those weird-ass dogs that don't do allergies though, didn't you say--oh. Oh. Um."
He stops and looks over his shoulder at you and your troll.
"I dunno, Harley, it's like...we already got one, and....I'm not exactly brimmin' over with nurturing skills here or anything..."
You give him a questioning look over the top of your shades.
"Fuck," he says. "I guess I already lost control of my life, huh? Let me call you right back."
When he hangs up you intensify the look, and he just sighs. "Looks like we might be getting another housemate, kid."
Bro nods, tiredly. "He can't live with Jade, he sneezes his head off every time that gigantic hound of hers comes near, and when a psionic sneezes he tends to set fire to shit with his sparks."
You can't help a snicker at this mental image. Karkat wriggles in your lap and looks up at you, big grey eyes curious.
"What do you think, little dude?" you inquire. "Is it okay if another troll moves in with you and me and Bro? A little yellow troll who needs somewhere to live?"
"Daev and Bo and Karkat and yellow," he says, and bonks his face against your shoulder, horns nudging at your chin. "Four."
illustrated by flyingchurros.
Bro hadn't been kidding, the yellowblood is tiny.
His name is Sollux and he has a killer lisp, which you think is clear and present evidence that the world is already set against him, poor little dude. Probably the lisp is due to his weird fucked-up tongue, which from the brief glimpse you got when he yawned is kind of forked at the tip. He's also got two sets of horns, which is kind of awesome in a weird way, and he's painfully thin.
You'd wanted to go over with Bro to pick him up but neither of you thought it was a good idea to a) bring Karkat along to the vet's or b) leave him unsupervised, since he'd already come close to impaling himself on a random sword cache after climbing up the fridge; you'd stayed at home with him and told the asshole at the club you spin for that you'd be there tonight as usual but you might have to leave early. Hell, trollsitting is going to be a big thing, isn't it.
Karkat had picked up on a little of your uncertainty about what the hell was going to happen next, and he'd plunked himself firmly in your lap and butted his head against your chin until you sighed and gave in to the demand for hornrubs. As always that seemed to chill him out, and he purred against your chest, just as innocent as the day is fucking long and in no way the kind of troll who would ever get into any kind of mischief.
He'd clung to you when Bro came home with Sollux, though, and hidden his face against your shoulder. You'd gone on petting his hair even as you went to examine your new housemate, who was likewise clinging to Bro, hunching his tiny birdlike shoulders in anxiety. Little blue and red sparks glared around the tips of his twinned horns, the same bright blue and red as his eyes. One wrist was bandaged, he was smudged with yellow bruises, and he was holding himself stiffly--oh, right, Bro had said he'd got a cracked rib. Jesus.
Bro had handled the introductions and taken Sollux off to his room--you figure the little guy could maybe do with some time lying down quietly in a dark room, after all this drama--and come back out and coaxed Karkat to show his face again. Eventually your troll had unpeeled himself and demanded to be given rides round the apartment on Bro's shoulders, steering with small fists wrapped around spikes of his hair.
You are going to have to quit spoiling that troll.
"How's he doing?" you ask, combing your hair in the bathroom mirror, the door open. You're in your club outfit already.
"Still sleeping. He was nervous as all fuck when I went to pick him up and he didn't talk at all on the way over." Bro sounds tired, as well he might. "But he was sort of pressing at his eyes and those sparks were worse, so I asked if he had a headache and he just sort of nodded slightly. Zahhak gave me a scrip for that, too, so I gave him one of his pills and he curled up in a pile and passed right the fuck out like a freshman at a frat party. Poor little guy."
"Eesh." You relocate a final lock of hair and spritz it with his hairspray: it's humid out and you don't want your 'do to get frizzy on the walk over to the club. There. Perfect.
You are just bright enough to realize that Karkat has cheeto dust all over his hands before you scoop him up and hug him, and you just ruffle his hair and rub his horns instead. Orange smears would not improve your outfit. "Be good, little dude, I gotta go to work."
"No," Karkat says, definitively. You look over at Bro, who gives a little wince and a shrug: okay, you had known this was coming.
"I gotta, otherwise I can't keep you in the style to which you have become accustomed," you say, and didn't realize you'd even said the key phrase can't keep you until he bursts into tears and flings himself at your legs, clinging. "Aw, shit, no, Karkles, no, that's not what I meant--goddamn, a little help here?"
Bro heaves himself off the sofa and comes to gently pry Karkat off you, wiping his fingers with the dishtowel that's hooked over one shoulder. "Hey, shh. Shhhoosh, you're not goin' anywhere, Kar. You're stayin' right here. Dave just has to go out and make money."
"Daev come back?"
"Hell yes I will come back. I'll bring you a little umbrella from the club or something, okay? Just...here, goddamnit." You take him from Bro, heedless of orange stains or pale-red tears, and hug him tight. "I'll always come back. Okay? Promise. You don't have to be left alone again."
Karkat is coughing and hiccuping, but he's not sounding frantic any more, and after holding him and patting his back and repeating yourself in varying sentence structures you really do have to get a move on. "Be good for Bro, okay? No shuriken."
"Karkat like shooriken," he snuffles into your shoulder.
"That's cause you got impeccable taste, but you're a little young to be playin' with edged weapons right now," Bro tells him. "C'mere, you can help me slay some pixels in Skyrim."
"Skyrim!" Huh, his vocabulary's expanded. At least he allows himself to be pried off you and transferred to Bro, and it looks like all the tearstains have been limited to your leather jacket, which doesn't much mind. It's distressed already.
It is...harder than you'd expected, leaving the apartment. Harder than you'd thought.
When you get back you're tired but strung taut, that kind of anxious you know means you won't sleep anytime soon. Bro is on the couch; there are no trolls in sight.
He puts his finger to his lips. Okay, they're sleeping. You nod, shrug out of your jacket, and come to join him. "How'd it go?"
"Not bad. We played Skyrim for a while and then I got some dinner into him and he curled up and went to sleep right there at the table, he's like a goddamn cat. I put him to bed in his pile about an hour ago, not a peep since."
"Still sleeping. I think those pills are a bit strong, honestly, gonna cut 'em in half in future. But with that rib and all the other shit I guess bein' asleep is nicer than bein' awake right now. Looks like he went a couple rounds with somethin' like a broom handle, if you ask me."
"Not a bo staff?" But you're not joking, any more than he is, and you take off your shades and rub at your eyes. "Fuck, Bro, this is...I mean...I kinda knew this went on, right? Like you do? But I can't deal with it now. I seriously cannot deal with...thinking about shit like that happening to Karkles. Is there...like...can we report them to someone? Is there some kind of society that helps trolls out?"
"I don't think so," Bro tells you.
"Then there fucking well needs to be."
He goes to bed not long after, but you know you won't be able to sleep. You turn the lights down and go get yourself a bowl of Glucose Frosted Sugar Bombs (now with marshmallows) and flip through to see what the late-night TV lineup has to offer. It's mostly by way of mental white noise. You can't stop thinking about all the other trolls out there who need help, who're in bad homes or have no homes at all. How many more unwanted free ugly trolls are out there in the rain right the hell now?
And what can you, Dave Strider, DJ and owner of copious amounts of swag but not a fuckton else, do about it?
A little after one there's a weird flickering light from the hallway and a sort of shuffling sound, and you jerk out of a half-daydream about piloting a giant mecha around and hitting troll-abusers with a sword, and realize: oh, that's...that's Sollux.
"Hey," you say quietly. He freezes, there's a brighter flare of sparks and a faint scent of ozone. "--No, it's cool, you're fine, just...d'you need anything? Bro said you had a headache."
Silence, except for the occasional fizzle and crackle, and then the troll comes forward into the living-room, hesitant and clutching a blanket around himself as if it's some kind of armor.
"It's okay, I promise." God, he's skittish, but wouldn't you be if your last people were the kind of lowlife fucknublets that would hurt a troll? "You didn't get any dinner, are you hungry?"
Very, very quietly, "...yeth?"
"I'm having Sugar Bombs for dinner because I'm a real bad example, but we got stuff to make, like, sandwiches, if you--"
"Thugar Bombth?" Sollux asks, and his eyes glow, hey, how about that, his eyes fucking glow when he opens them all the way. He's a little dim silhouette except for those tiny halo sparks and those eyes.
"Yeah, these are the good kind with the marshmallows and the like multicolored extra crystally shit all over them. Want some?"
"Yeth," he says, and then clearly remembering, adds "pleathe."
When you get off the couch he backs away several steps, hugging the blanket around himself, but you just walk smoothly past him to the kitchen and flick on the under-cabinet light so you can see what you're doing, not the overhead fluorescent. You think he's probably even more light-sensitive than Karkat.
Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle sniffle, and he's standing just by the doorway, peering round it at you. Oh, god, he really is so nervous and so little and you want to punch whoever hurt him in the dick.
He nods a little, and you pour lactose-free milk over his cereal--the other kind fucks up your stomach, besides this stuff lasts forever in the fridge without going sour--and hand the bowl down to him, with a spoon. He stares at you.
"I get a whole bowl?"
"Hell yeah, this is the Casa de Strider, we are not parsimonious with our gross sugary cereal, dude. You don't gotta finish it if you don't want to."
You can see his mouth sort of twitching, as if it's trying to turn up at the corners but he isn't letting it.
"I'm watching dumb TV, if you wanna join me, but you can take that back to Bro's room. If you're careful not to spill, I mean."
He looks down at his prize and then back up to you. "Can I thtay a little?"
"You got it."
You shut down the kitchen light and pad back through to the couch, reclaiming your own dinner, and after a little while Sollux clambers up to sit in a very neat self-contained bundle wrapped around his bowl, eating cereal as if it's the best fucking thing he's ever tasted.
You don't push it by reaching out to touch him, as much as you want to. You just sit there, sprawled comfortably on the couch, and after a while you're almost dozing when you feel the couch cushions move and he's sort of curled up next to you, really close but not quite touching. As if he isn't sure he's allowed.
Now you let yourself pet his hair very gently. He trembles all over, and then looks up with those weird LED-bright eyes. Silently you offer him the shelter of an arm, and he clings to you, all bony points and shivering delicacy and sparking energy. You hold him very gently, and after a while you dare to give his twinned horns a rub.
He sighs, and some of the awful tension drains out of him, and the light-show settles down to almost nothing.
In the morning Bro finds the pair of you curled up on the couch with the TV still playing, and you wake up to the sound of him taking a picture with his phone, the absolute bastard.
"That's a keeper," he says, and you wake up just enough further to flip him off.
now illustrated by xadorkablemarinax, whose picture made this entire fic happen in the first place!
There are few things in your life that you honestly cannot deal with, mostly thanks to your bro's exceedingly tough brand of love and of course your innate motherfucking cool, but a jealous Karkat may have just made the list.
Because you'd fallen asleep on the couch with Sollux you hadn't been there when Karkat woke up, and that had upset him to start with, and then when he made his way out and actually saw you, he threw a wobbler of astonishing proportions given how little he really is. Which had upset Sollux, of course, who proceeded to go hide under the table, and Bro had had to go to work so you had zero backup and frankly you were pretty close to flipping your own shit by the time you were able to convince Karkat that you still wanted him and he wasn't being replaced.
He'd taken the idea of another troll joining the household with surprising equanimity, but apparently the actual presence of another troll was another situation entirely.
You are making them both hot chocolate in the hopes that it will encourage the pair of them to chill the fuck out. Karkat has attached himself to you with all four limbs, little hands clutching your shirt, and you're trying to do shit like get out mugs and stir things with him still hanging on; Sollux watches, from a little way away, sucking his thumb and staring at you with those bizarre pupilless eyes, how does he even fucking see with those things.
"You want the little marshmallows?" you inquire. Sollux nodnodnods; Karkat hiccups and demands to be told what a marshmallow is, so you drop several in his mug as well. Trolls apparently really dig sweet things.
Oh, fuck. Does Zahhak do troll dentistry?
And...ngh, goddamnit, this is really beginning to bug you on a visceral level. You settle at the kitchen table with your companions, whom you do not actually fucking want to own so much as maybe adopt, and you sip your own hot chocolate and consider the problem while you try to keep Karkat from spilling his all over you and the table and the general landscape.
The thing is that trolls as pets is an idea that's deeply fucking ingrained in society as a whole, to the point where anyone pointing out that they're actually people is taken to be a kook along the lines of those assholes who break into research labs and free all the little pink-eyed mice for great justice. You yourself have never really thought about the ethical ramifications until you actually had a troll clinging to you and saying your fucking name.
(It is astonishing how much of a difference that makes.)
You think probably more people would realize how fucked-up this whole thing is if they just stopped and thought about it, and someone needs to make them do that. And you think, further, that your Bro and Jade Harley and Ms. Peixes and Dr. Zahhak from the clinic would agree with you.
In your short life (you're the youngest goddamn DJ ever to spin at Rise, a fact which you're justifiably proud of) you haven't ever really felt passionate about anything much other than the importance of having a really cool haircut and awesomely ironic shades. It feels weird as fuck to realize that there's a lot of things out there that matter more than you do, and that you, Dave Strider, may be the center of your own solar system but yours is not the only star in the galaxy.
Sollux is looking at you, thin little hands wrapped around his mug, and you realize that the poker face you've trained yourself into--and the aviators--mean that while the rest of the world can't see what you're thinking, neither can these two trolls. Fuck.
You take off the shades. You can see his eyes widen when he sees yours.
"You have--" he starts, and then immediately hunches down in on himself: you can practically hear the DON'T MAKE PERSONAL REMARKS ABOUT YOUR OWNERS hitting him over the head.
"Weird eyes, yep, I know. They're not as cool as yours."
Sollux stares. Karkat's mostly done with his hot chocolate and he's curled up in your arms with his head on your shoulder, heavy with sleepiness--he'd worn himself out crying--and you let yourself smile over the messy hair and little round hornlets. "Bro's are orange. I got some problems with bright light, 's why I wear the sunglasses all the time, but I don't really need 'em indoors."
"Orange?" he repeats.
"Mmhmm. Weird as shit. This household is kinda weird as shit in general, if you hadn't got that already."
"It ith weird," Sollux blurts out. "You're...you let me have my own bowl of thereal and you're not yelling at me and you let that little wiggler throw a fit and..."
"Let, nothing. I doubt there's a force on Earth that could stop Karkles from throwin' fits. He's little, he's had a shitty time of it, he was really sick when I found him. I guess a tantrum or two is justifiable."
Sollux hunches again. "--Hey, hey, it's cool. It is cool as ice up in here." It isn't, really, and you know it. "Look. I...admit this whole troll thing is pretty new to me. But I promise you guys are safe here. Bro and I, we've got you. I just. What happened to you guys is not okay, and it's happening to other trolls, and I...I want to do something about it."
"Do thomething?" he says, looking incredulous.
"Yeah. Like...help you guys out somehow. Make people realize you're...you shouldn't be pets."
"We are petth." Christ, he's so little, so fragile, so completely convinced of that.
"You shouldn't be. You should be, like, part of people's families. If you want to."
This is clearly upsetting Sollux, so you back off. "Anyway. You don't have to be scared of stuff here. Just...just know you're safe, okay?"
After a moment he nods.
You get a call from Zahhak's office halfway through the afternoon. "Mr. Strider?"
"Uh, Bro's at work, can I take a message?"
"Actually it was you I wanted!" Yeah, that's Ms. Peixes all right, nobody else you know sounds quite that excited to talk to you. "Dr. Zahhak would like you to bring Karkat in for a follow-up visit."
"He's doing fine now," you say. It's funny how quickly you've developed defensiveness.
"I'm sure he is, but Dr. Z would like to see him anyway. And you, actually. I think he wants to talk to you!"
...You wonder if he's having the same concerns that you are, and bite your lip. Dude is a vet. He has to treat trolls-as-pets all the fucking time. Jesus.
"Yeah, okay," you say. "I can get Bro to drop us off tomorrow morning, is that cool?"
"That will do nicely!"
"Is it okay if I bring Sollux too? I don't...wanna leave him all alone in the apartment." Not because you're afraid he'll break stuff; because being alone in a strange place is fucking scary when you aren't recovering from physical and mental injury.
"Of course! Dr. Z would like to see him too."
"Cool," you tell Ms. Peixes, and you can't deny, despite the worry and the weirdness of this entire situation, that there's a small and kind of scary hope starting in your chest.
You are absolutely sure that this shit is not approved by the whatever agency of approving safety standards is supposed to pay attention to such things but...Karkat's too little to sit in the damn car seat on his own, so you're in the back with him and Sollux and Bro is chauffeuring the three of you to Zahhak's in high goddamn style.
Karkat had had a subdued afternoon yesterday, after his morning's histrionics, and he's been extra clingy ever since; he'd woken you up crawling into bed with you and you'd just sighed and hugged him, letting him nestle against you under the covers. Poor little guy. You think it's probably pretty scary to actually have another troll hanging around, especially if you've been...fuck, you make yourself think the words, thrown away once already.
Same goes for Sollux, of course. He's anxious as fuck, his psionics crackling between the twinned horns like little Jacob's ladders. You want to put an arm around him too but he's safely buckled into his seat, small as he is, and that will have to do.
Thank fuck nobody gets carsick.
When Bro pulls up outside the clinic you get out, Karkat balanced on a hip, and come round to fetch Sollux. He's skinny as hell but he's about tall enough to walk hand in hand comfortably with you, if you're careful to slow your, heh, stride.
"You got cab fare, kid?" Bro asks, leaning over the seat.
"Yeah, we're cool. I'll say hi to Jade for you." Eyebrow-waggle. Bro flips you off amiably and pulls away, and you're left with a troll in one arm and a troll's hand in the other hand and why the shit do you feel like the entire world is watching what you do?
Inside it's cool and smells like a dentist's, like it had before. Karkat doesn't like it, hiding his face against your shoulder, and you can tell Sollux doesn't either: he's sitting very rigidly still on the waiting-room chair, looking firmly at the floor, hands folded in his lap. The very picture of a demure and well-behaved troll.
You kind of wonder just what he can do with those blue-scarlet sparks.
Luckily this early there's only one other person in the waiting room, an old lady with a cat carrier: the cat inside peers interestedly at you and your comrades, but doesn't make a sound. You can see Sollux eyeing it, every narrow bone in him hunched and anxious, and you wonder if his people had had other pets, and if so, how they'd treated them.
"Dave?" Ms. Peixes pokes her head round the door. "You can come on back."
Dr. Zahhak looks tired, as far as you can make out behind his weird greyish glasses. Mostly it's not the facial expression so much as the slight slump to his shoulders and the one slightly-out-of-place lock of hair that in another hour or so is going to work its way out of his ponytail. He smiles to see Karkat, though, and Sollux: a real smile, it reaches his dimly-visible eyes.
"Hey," you say. "Karkles had kinda the dramatic reaction to Sol joining our little menage, but he chilled out and got over it, I'm pretty sure. He's still kinda got a cough but it's nothing like it was before."
"Splendid." Zahhak nods. "Here, Karkat, can you be patient with me for just a little while I listen to your lungs?"
Karkat had unburied his face at the sound of that deep voice, and now stares up at Zahhak, who holds out his hands--and glory fuckin' be, your tiny klingon reaches out to him with that same imperious UP demand. Zahhak lifts him gently out of your arms, his vast hands dwarfing Karkat's little body, and there's an awful tenderness on his face you know he isn't aware of. "Hullo," he says. "How are you feeling?"
"Daev keeping me," he says, confiding a closely kept secret. Zahhak looks over his small curly head at you --and at Sollux, who is observing the floor.
"He was pretty frightened that I was....that we were, like, replacing him," you say. "I think I convinced him otherwise."
"I think," Zahhak says, "that you are very safe with Dave, Karkat. As are you, Sollux. Dave and Dirk will not let harm come to you."
"Irk?" Karkat wants to know.
"That's Bro's name, little dude."
Karkat is astonished by the idea of people having two separate names. While he's considering that, Zahhak is listening to him breathe, having gently set him on the table. You keep talking to distract him while the stethoscope moves across his back. "Dirk's his given name, like mine is Dave, but he's my bro, so that's what I call him. He and I are bros."
"Brotherth," Sollux puts in quietly.
"Yeah. Only we're Striders, and Striders are special, so it's bros."
"Close enough," you say. Zahhak has two enormous fingers on a tiny troll wrist and is looking at his watch. It's...Christ, you haven't been sleeping, that's why you sort of want to cry.
"Karkat and Bos and--" he glances over, obviously trepidatious. "And Tholluckth?"
"Sollux," you say quickly.
"No, it'th okay," Sollux tells you all, quietly. "It'th fine."
"Tholluckth," says Karkat again. "All same house."
"That's right," you say. "All of us. We're a family, okay, Karkles?"
"Family," he repeats, and blinks up at you, and then up at Zahhak, and you cannot help but see the muscles in the big dude's jaw go stark under his skin.
"Which is just how it ought to be," Zahhak says, unclenching smoothly, his voice even. "You are in a good place, Karkat, and you are very much better than you've been. I think we can stop the antihistamine unless he shows any signs of recurring inflammation. Just try to get him to breathe very deeply when he wakes up--make it a game, or something. --No, it's all right." He turns his attention to Karkat, who is wondering what he's talking about, and gives his curls a little ruffle with a forefinger. "You're in good shape, Karkat. I don't think I'll need to have you in again."
"Octor Zack," Karkat says, solemnly. You swallow, as does Zahhak, and you scoop Karkat up into your arms.
"That's right, dude, Doctor Zahhak. He's a good guy."
"Good guy," Karkat repeats, and settles against you, contentedly observing the world.
When you look up at the vet the color is fading from his cheeks but you can tell it was there.
"Your turn, man," you say to Sollux. "Here." You give him a hand up to the table, where he sits hunched as tight as you've ever seen him, chin tucked and double horns pointed outward in the most defensive posture he can manage.
"I won't make you answer any questions you don't want to," Zahhak says. "But you look a great deal better than you did the last time I saw you, Sollux. May I have a look at your wrist and your ribs?"
Sollux stares up at him. "You're athking?"
"....Okay, I guethth."
You watch as Zahhak very gently lifts and tilts his hurt wrist, running his fingertips over the tiny bones, and as he listens to Sollux's chest and back and examines the strapped-up rib.
"I'd need another film to measure the healing exactly, but you're doing extremely well and I don't see the need to take more x-rays than I strictly need. Your wrist can probably come out of the splint in another couple of days and I want you to keep the rib strapping for another week, but after that you ought to be fine. All the lacerations seem to be healing well."
He's not talking to you the owner: he's talking to Sollux the troll, and you are stupidly glad.
"I c-can't thleep," Sollux says very quietly.
"Yeth. And...and..." He looks over at you as if he can't dare to say whatever's bothering him with you there: you give him an actual smile and a nod.
"...and I don't have my bee," he finishes.
"Nah," you cut in, "the only thing that's stupid is the jackholes who hurt you, tell us about your bee, dude."
Both Zahhak and Sollux wince. "Um," Sollux says in a tiny voice. "It wath....it...it wath a thtuffed bee. Thtupid. Jutht....I didn't have thtuff. One of their kidth gave me the bee."
Fuck, your chest hurts. "Hey...hey, we can get you another one."
"I don't want another one," Sollux says in a hurry. "Jutht my bee. But it'th okay. Forget it."
You look at Zahhak and he looks at you and hell if you don't see right the fuck into one another's eyes, shades notwithstanding.
Miss Peixes is happy to cuddle Karkat and let Sollux sit on the front-desk chair and stare intently at the computer while you talk to Zahhak. It's not a fun conversation. It's certainly not a conversation you'd expected to have when you woke up this morning. But it's...you think...a step in the right direction.
You text Bro.
TG: so dr z is all fired up about shit like troll emancipation
TG: cant find a good way to say this but
TT: But you are too.
TT: I know.
TT: So am I. So's Jade and her brother. And Peixes.
TT: Shit must change, little dude. Shit is not okay.
TG: fuck yeah
You take the trolls home in a cab, get some lunch into them; you think of taking the pair of them to the park down the street from your apartment building, but they'd both been so nervous in the open air that you think it's probably too soon. You need to go out to work tonight, so as soon as you get Karkat settled in his pile for a nap you fetch your laptop and start looking up the things Zahhak had mentioned.
Sollux has been watching TV in a nervous twitchy sort of way, and goes on doing so for a little while after you take your laptop out to the kitchen and get settled with an orange soda; then there's a little fizzle-crackle and the TV turns itself off and you can hear little feet padding across the carpet. He still hangs back as if he's not sure he's allowed to approach you, and you squash frustration: it's not his fault he's been through hell and isn't wild about people right now.
You look down. "Hey, Sol."
He's chewing on his lip with those weird double fangs. "Um. What...what are you doing?"
Whoa, that's a fucking breakthrough. You don't try to stop the smile. "Looking shit up. Other people in the area who might be able to help us get together some kinda organization to help trolls out."
He still looks so confused at that. "Like....like a, a rethcue?"
"Kinda, I guess." You don't want to harp on the paradigm-shift bit of this: it's upset him before and he's already had to deal with a trip to the doctor today, that's way more than enough stress. "People who want to help trolls who don't have homes, or who have really shitty homes they need to not be in anymore."
"Oh," says Sollux, in a small voice, and stares at the floor.
"What's the matter?"
"I jutht. It'th dumb."
"Pff, lay it on me, little dude."
"I jutht...really want my bee," he says, and sniffles, and you push away the computer and lean down to scoop him up in your lap and hug him tight. This close the psionic sparks make your hair stand on end and your lips sting. It's bizarre.
"Tell me about it?" you ask. Sollux thunks his face against your shoulder and clings to you with narrow little fingers.
It takes a long time, and he has turned half your shirt sort of goldenrod yellow with tears by the time he's done, but he tells you what you need to know. It sounds like what Zahhak had said was depressingly common, a wealthy woman acquiring a rare exotic pet without actually bothering to consider the ramifications of caring for said pet, or doing any of the research, with the inevitable result that when Sol's primary-colored sparks fucked up her electronics or zapped her by mistake, or when he didn't display on command or had a headache or a thousand other bullshit incidences she got more and more pissy with him, and ended up using the broom. First just shooing him away from stuff, and then...not just that.
Her kids were pretty nasty, too, but the little girl had given him the bee: a present from some well-meaning uncle or aunt that hadn't met with its recipient's approval, regifted to her mom's weird sparky troll. He describes it to you: sounds perfectly fucking hideous, some globular brightly-colored soft abomination, obviously the only comfort object he's ever had.
You don't ask him, and he doesn't volunteer, how he came to be found on the side of the road leading out of town; you think you can probably guess.
"Listen," you say. You've been sort of vaguely rocking back and forth with him pressing his face tightly against you. "Hey, Sol, listen, okay? I can't promise we can get your bee back, but I'm at least gonna try. If we can't, I tell you what, we can go to the groovy toy store that has like plush fruitbats and anacondas and shit and see if there's anything else you want."
He looks up at you and snrfles, the tears glazing his red-blue eyes orange and green. Despite the lack of visible pupils you can tell he's staring at you in the hopes of figuring out if you're fucking with him, and you can't not hug him close again. "I mean it, dude."
You narrowly avoid being stabbed in the neck by tiny pointy horns as he flings his arms round your neck and fucking clings to you.
Work that night is again not one of your best sets, but a damn sight better than anyone else at Rise could manage. You can't stop thinking about how the fuck you're going to get Sol's bee back from his shithead owners. Straight-up breaking and entering sounds pretty enticing but you, while awesome in every way, are not exactly trained in the art of cat burglary. You think Bro could probably do it, because he can do everything, but you don't wanna ask him to pull something like that on your behalf.
Assuming the woman still even has the goddamn bee, how can you get her to hand it over? Your fingers absently play over level sliders and fade controls while you think, the music flowing over and through you, and more than one of the clubgoers looks at you funny because you appear to have an actual expression on your face; but by the time it's last call you think you might have an idea.
Bro looks tired when you get back, and you know how the fuck he feels. "What'd they do now?"
"Nothin'," he says, yawning. "Karkat ate too many cheerios or something, got sick, but it didn't seem to bug him a whole lot, he went right back to sleep once I cleaned him up. Sollux was reading. I let him keep the desk light on for a while."
"Man, I don't even know how the fuck you did it once already, let alone again with two," you tell him, and flop onto the couch. "Shit is crazy. Wait, reading?"
"Yeah, I don't think that shithole of a previous home did him any favors when it came to education, but somebody taught him basic shit. Maybe it was him. Little guy is ridiculously smart."
"I know. Listen, I promised him we'd try to get his bee back." You tell Bro the story of the bee, and his brows draw closer together behind the shades; after a while he pulls them off and just rubs at his eyes. "--so I think if we get Dr. Z to do the actual visit, if they still have the damn bee in the first place, they'll probably give it up with a quickness. Nobody wants weird mysterious troll cooties, specially if they happen to be jackholes who shouldn't have had a troll in the first place."
"Worth a shot," he agrees. "But yeah, if we can't do it, we can't do it, and maybe it's better for him to have something new that isn't all...covered in shitty memories. Fuck, Dave. I want to talk to that woman myself."
"Yeah." And you want to find who put Karkat in that box and left him in the rain. The thought tugs sharply at your chest and you straighten up. "Poor little dudes. I'ma go check on Karkat, then...shit, I'm gonna crash, this responsibility gig kinda screws with your late-night partyin' capabilities."
Bro gives you an orange look, and then one of his rare rapid little grins. "No shit?"
"It is a crazy fucking revelation, man. --You should sleep too, jesus christ, you were at work all day and then had to deal with barf, that is above and beyond the call of duty."
"Can I get that in writing?" he asks, but the grin has softened. "Yeah, yeah. Go on. I'll be fine, kid."
It seems utterly unbelievable that this time two weeks ago you didn't have any trolls at all, or much of anything by way of responsibilities other than showing up to work and dropping sick beats like no other. You go brush your teeth and wash your face and let yourself into your bedroom--there's an ironic nightlight shaped like Goofy's head plugged into one of the outlets, casting a dim yellowish glow, enough light for you to pick your way through the clutter without falling over anything.
Karkat is curled up in his pile, small face wan in the dimness. You reach for the blanket that's slipped away and cover him up properly, and he sighs a little and blinks up at you: fuck, you woke him up, way to go, Strider.
"Dave," he says, and you can hear the slight difference in pronunciation. He must've been practicing, it's smoother, although you can tell he's still having some difficulty with the D. "I barfed." This is clearly important news.
"You did?" you ask, rubbing one of his horns. "That sucks, little dude, I'm sorry."
"All over Bo," he adds, and you could swear to God he sounds proud of himself, and you can't help laughing: he giggles too, and you rest the back of your hand against his cheek. He's not running a temperature; probably Bro's right, he just ate too much.
(You wonder when he'd had the chance to eat too much before, or even learn when too much was too much, and resolve to keep an eye on portion size.)
"I sleep wif Dave?"
That makes you laugh again. "Depends, you gonna barf on me too?"
"Uh-uh." Karkat sounds pretty sure of that, and you absolutely cannot not scoop him up when he's reaching up to you like that with small grey hands. He starts purring the minute you lift him out of the pile, and, oh, God, you would do pretty much anything for him, this strange wonderful little troll with his unsatisfactory horns and his weird-ass blood color, anything at all.
By now you're pretty much used to going to sleep with a dense warm bundle of troll curled up against you, and it doesn't take you very long at all to drift off.
Your name is Dirk Strider, and you thought you were over this.
You thought you were over it when Dave went off to school each morning not looking back. When he'd entered that amorphous phase of my-guardian-is-desperately-embarrassing-even-though-we-hang-out-all-the-time. When he'd grown up.
You aren't over it, because when you wake up bleary-eyed and almost past your alarm to find Sollux is wrapped around your god damn jacket and clutching it like it's the next best thing to his lost bee, your heart does a vertiginous loop-the-loop in your chest and you have to swallow real hard to get it to quit fucking around and get back to business.
Dave had clung to you once, like that. Like Karkat clings to him.
You take a very hot shower and spend enough time talking yourself down while doing your hair that your deadpan is barely ruffled when Sollux pads out to the kitchen and looks up at you.
"Um," he says.
"Yeah?" You're adding a third packet of instant coffee to your travel mug. "What's up, Sollux?"
"D-Dave thaid that you guyth were gonna try to get my bee back."
"Yup. I can't promise it, but we're gonna give it a shot." You add sugar. Your sleep schedule has been fucked over a card table without lube just lately and goddamn it is difficult to get going but hey, you don't show up late: that is not something you do.
He's still standing there, and, oh, Christ, he's sucking his thumb.
"I have a microchip," he says, very very quietly. You blink down at him. "I mean. It can. Tell you where they live and thtuff."
"Zahhak didn't notice that?" you ask yourself. "Shit. He musta been real distracted."
Sollux's feet shuffle together, overlap, his toes digging into the carpet. "I'm thorry."
"Huh?" You put down the spoon. "No, wait, hey, Sol, there is nothin' about this you got to feel sorry about." You kneel down so you're more or less on his eye level and look at him over your shades. "Nothin' at all. Okay?"
Little tiny nod, and he's chewing on his thumb now, not sucking it. Yow, those are some fangs. "Hey, come here." You reach for him, and almost too quickly to follow he's clinging to you, but at least he doesn't seem to be crying. You pet his horns. "Shh. It's cool, little guy. It is very cool. Gonna...have to get you back to Dr. Z's clinic again to get you scanned, but after that we know what we've gotta do. Dave said if we can't get your bee back we'll take you to find something else, right?"
Sollux nods against you. You give him a tight little hug, careful of his hurt rib, and ruffle his hair before letting go. "You don't know us that well, so it's like kinda hard to believe it when we say shit like we will make this happen, but...we will. Promise."
He looks at you earnestly, and something in your face must convince him, because he just nods and absently reaches to un-ruffle his hair again. "Okay."
There's something else, obviously. You wait. "...Dave thaid your name wath Dirk."
"Yup. Dirk Strider, the one and only." You tilt the shades at him, and oh, hey, look at that, that's the edges of a smile.
"Can. Um. Can I call you that?"
"Course you can. Karkles hasn't quite got the difference between Bo and Bro yet, but hey, he'll figure it out." You stand up, a series of little unfoldings, feeling the fatigue of the past few days along your spine and shoulders. "Now. Gross sugar bombs for breakfast and no coffee, or toast and limited amounts of coffee, it's up to you."
That seems to present him with a poser, and he sucks his thumb earnestly while working it out. "...Thugar bombth pleathe? Coffee thometimeth maketh me thpark more."
"Sugar bombs it is."
...You are so not over this. Once your back is turned you have to swallow really hard to get the lump in your throat to ease up. He's...fuck, you really want your sword with you when you go to say hello to his erstwhile owners.
Dave: Get shit done.
By the time you've hauled your carcass out of bed (and detached Karkat long enough for you to shower, brush your teeth, and do your hair, after which of course he needs a wash and a tooth-brushing, which he vehemently objects to) Bro is already gone--with Sollux. He's left a note for you transfixed to the butcher-block table with, what else, a shuriken.
Takin' Sol to the clinic to get his chip scanned, back soon with one of the Harleys to watch them while you and I go get our discuss on with his people. Dress appropriately.
You grin and toss the little throwing-star into a drawer, crumpling up Bro's note. Karkat pads into the kitchen after you, rubbing at his face. "Dave," he says. "I not like oothpase."
"Nobody does, little dude." You go over and scoop him up. "But it does come in other flavors. You like cinnamon?"
He looks contemplative, and you have to chuckle. "We'll find something you like better. But you gotta brush your teeth, Karkles, or they'll fall out and you won't be able to bite things, and that is just way too much of a fuckin' tragedy to contemplate."
"Teeth fall out?"
"Only if you don't take care of them. Talkin' of which. Cheerios for you, man, and hey, look, Bro actually left some goddamn toast in the goddamn toast rack, wonders will never fuckin' cease."
Karkat manages to get most of his breakfast into him as opposed to all over the landscape, and you think the little occasional cough isn't anything to worry about. Mostly you just want to get him chilled out so that when you have to leave him and Sol with a trollsitter he won't flip his shit. He tends to get sleepy and docile right after he's eaten, so hopefully a late breakfast is a strategic planning maneuver.
As it happens you're done putting shit away after you get both of you fed and you're reading him the TV Guide, him cuddled on your lap and poking at the pages to inquire what that is and what that is and what that is, when keys rattle in the lock and Bro's back with Sollux and Jade Harley. Karkat blinks and looks around, rather than burying his face immediately in your shoulder, which you think is a good sign.
"Hey," you say, looking over the back of the sofa. "All set?"
"All set," Bro says. He sounds weary but determined as fuck, which is just how you feel.
"Okay. Hey, Karkles, you remember Miss Harley, right?"
"Jade," says Jade, kneeling down by the couch so he doesn't have to stare up at her. "Hi, Karkat."
Karkat blinks at her. "Octor Zack's office."
"That's right," she says. "I work with Dr. Zahhak. He thinks you're excellent, by the way."
"Good troll," Karkat says, and wraps his little arms around himself, and your fucking heart breaks into a zillion pieces. By the look on Jade's face it's not just you.
"You're an excellent troll, little dude," you tell him. "The best of trolls."
It's not like you didn't already want to hit a whole bunch of people with swords or anything. It's just that now you want to hit society as an abstract concept with a sword. "You're your own troll, man. Karkat is sufficient unto Karkat. But we love you, okay? Karkat's Dave's family."
He looks puzzled. "Family?"
"Yup. We'll talk about it, okay? Promise. Everything's gonna be cool. Can you show Jade around the apartment for me? She's gotta stay here for a little while, you and Sol have to make sure she doesn't get into any trouble."
Karkat puffs up with tiny undeniable pride. "I in charge?"
"Yeah," you say, and kiss the top of his head. "You're in charge, man. Big responsibility. Jade, you gotta do what he says, hear?"
She swallows hard, and in that moment you want to hug her too. "Yessir. Obedient to a fault, that's me."
"Good. Okay, man, Bro and I will be right back. You gotta hold the fort down while we're away, you and Sol."
Karkat nodnodnods sternly.
In the car you don't say anything, and neither does Bro, for almost all the way to pick up your star. He just reaches over with one leather-clad hand and squeezes your shoulder, hard enough almost to hurt, and you swallow, and know what he means it for, and just nod.
You are not at all surprised to find that the woman who owned Sollux lives in a nice suburb, in one of the McMansions put up a couple years back when development was still profitable. There is a Range Rover in the driveway, and you would bet money that it has never roved a range more challenging than the Whole Foods parking lot.
You and Bro had switched to Zahhak's car because the dude drives a Crown Vic--not a new one, but since when are official cars ever new models?--and it's a hell of a lot more unnerving to see pulling up at the curb than Bro's beige Skylark. (You think maybe Zahhak enjoys the oh-shit-cop-car response he gets in traffic. You know you do.)
You're in the back. Bro holds up a hand when Zahhak moves to get out of the car. "Wait," he says.
"Give them time to get the wrong impression."
You like being a Strider.
When he's judged enough time has elapsed, Bro opens the door and steps out, looking impassive behind his shades. You join him. Zahhak walks past you both, all black clothes and dark glasses and badass ponytail, and raps firmly on the door.
She's....pretty much exactly what you expected. Late thirties, carefully made up, hair a glossy combination of painted shades of chestnut brown--some stylist musta spent fuckin' hours on that shit--a watch that has got to be real because nobody would wear a fake as big and obnoxious as that one, the kind of simple clothes that cost stupid amounts of money. Her nails are painted coppery orange. "Yes?"
"Ms. Sandra Harrison?" Wow, his voice is super deep when he wants it to be.
"Yes?" she says again, more sharply.
"My name is Equius Zahhak. I'm a veterinarian. Your name and address were coded on a microchip found on a stray yellowblood troll who was brought to my practice."
You and Bro are standing behind him and slightly to either side, arms folded, and both of you watch as Harrison's eyes widen fractionally and then narrow in a frown. She doesn't know where this is going, and you're kind of impressed by how deftly Zahhak times it.
"This troll is currently under my care for certain blunt-force injuries and what appears to be the result of serious neglect. I'm sure you're aware, Ms. Harrison, that under chapter three, section eighteen of the state's code regarding the regulation and licensing of pets, the owner of a microchipped troll must notify the licensing bureau in writing of their intent to sell or otherwise renounce ownership of that troll prior to doing so."
"Oh," she says, "no, I didn't know that."
"Failure to do so," Zahhak continues, "constitutes negligence of care, which coupled with evidence of physical abuse of the troll means, I'm afraid, that you are potentially subject to a fine of up to two thousand dollars and two months of community service, and possible criminal proceedings."
You watch Harrison's face: her eyes are narrowed, fixed on him.
"Are you threatening me?" she asks, incredulously.
"I'm sorry?" Zahhak leans his head infinitesimally toward her, and yow, that's some weapons-grade menace.
"--Whoever you are, I'm not interested in discussing this matter with you--" she starts to say, and hey, look, there are her kids, peering curiously past her at the strange people at the door.
"Mommy? What's going on?"
"There's one other aspect you need to know about, Ms. Harrison," Zahhak rumbles. "The troll in question has tested positive for certain infections which under some circumstances can be communicable to humans."
"Is he talking about Sollux?" the little girl wants to know. Harrison hisses at her to be quiet.
"That's right." Zahhak turns his attention to the kid. "He used to live with you, didn't he?"
Wide-eyed nod. "He ran away."
"I see," Zahhak says. "Well, Ms. Harrison--"
"What do you mean infections?" she demands.
"I doubt there's any real danger, but if I were you I'd get rid of his clothes and toys just to be on the safe side. You can donate them to a shelter."
"What clothes and toys?" she says, but her kid cuts in.
"He left his bee," says the little girl. "He used to carry it around all the time."
"Do you still have it?"
"Could you go fetch it for me?"
Nodnodnod, and the little girl scuttles off despite her mother's protests. Zahhak returns his attention to Ms. Harrison. "--Now I understand that you have neither the inclination nor the time to care for a troll, and while it is my legal duty to report you, I'm willing to look the other way on the following conditions: one, you legally sign over ownership of Sollux to this gentleman here, Mr. Dirk Strider, and two, you reimburse Mr. Strider for the costs incurred in Sollux's care while he was still legally your troll."
Otherwise, he doesn't say, I can make your life complicated in a way you don't want people to witness.
She has gone very pale and her mouth is a thin lipsticked line. "I'll be speaking to my attorney."
"I really wouldn't recommend it," Zahhak tells her earnestly, "because you are in fact legally at fault in this matter, and your attorney will have to bill you for the time they take explaining as much."
Harrison is about to say something else but just then the kid hurries back with a...deeply hideous object clutched in her arms. It is blue and pink and bulbous and it has deranged googly eyes.
"He really liked it," the little girl is saying. "I don't get why he didn't take it when he ran away."
Her mother twitches the bee out of her grip and holds it out at arm's length, as if it's crawling with plague germs. Zahhak takes it politely and nods to her. "Thank you, Ms. Harrison. Here's my card; please don't hesitate to call if you have any questions about the paperwork. --Now I think Mr. Strider and his brother would like a word with you."
"Caitlyn, go watch TV," she says.
Caitlyn looks up at you and then at her mother and then at you again, and trails off back into the house. Zahhak has taken the fucking ugly stuffed bee down to the car, and is texting someone.
"Yeah, hi," Bro says, and in his voice is the equivalent of cracking knuckles. You let yourself smile.
"I still wish we coulda brought swords," you say, on the way back. "I wouldn't have done anything real illegal. Just...maybe wave it around a little. Show off."
"I think you did quite well with what you had," Zahhak rumbles. "I expected her to start crying at any minute."
"The bit where you got all quiet and up in her face and asked her to think about that was quality, dude." You lean on the back of the passenger seat. "Good timing with the shades, too."
"Hey, you weren't too shabby yourself, kid. The cereal thing, that was inspired."
You'd never really attacked anyone just with words and guilt before. It feels weird. Good, but weird. Between the two of you, you think at least she got a little bit of how much of a terrible person she was, and you don't think she'll be hurting any more trolls.
"Also," you add. "Dr. Z. Seriously, I didn't know all that law code stuff was a thing, do you have to memorize that as, like, part of being a vet?"
"God no," he says, "I made it up as I went along. Did it sound all right?"
"Damn," says Bro, and that's legitimate admiration in his voice.
"Of course, if she does end up talking to her attorney, I'm probably going to get shouted at, but I think on the whole this was worth it. Actually reporting her and pushing the case through the system would have taken months and there's no guarantee she'd ever actually understand what it was she'd done. Sometimes the quicker option is the best one."
"So Sol's gonna be legally ours?"
"Yes." Zahhak's voice is tight. "Dirk, you'll be legal owner. Which reminds me, Dave, you need to fill in the license form for Karkat."
"I know. But just...for now think of it as a necessary unpleasantness. We can't do anything about the system unless we engage with it, I'm afraid."
"I guess." You sit back against the upholstery. "I still fuckin' hate the 'own' thing."
"Me too. Makes me kinda sick to my stomach," Bro says. "But he's right, kid, we gotta start somewhere."
So it started there, you think, in the back of Dr. Z's land yacht, barely two weeks after you walked past the unwanted free ugly troll in the first place. You feel like it's taken so much more time and space to change your world; the realization of how small that world is comes as such a surprise.
"Look," Zahhak is saying as you pull into the clinic's parking lot next to Bro's Buick. "If we're going to do this, we need to organize ourselves. I'm inviting you two and Feferi and Jade, and Jake if he wants to come, to meet at my house this Saturday evening. We can talk about the logistics of setting up a rescue."
"What about trollsitting?"
"Bring them." Zahhak gives you both a smile he's utterly underestimated. "They're part of the group, after all."
When you get into Bro's car neither of you have to say anything at all: you just rest your head on his shoulder and his arm wraps round you, hard, tight, and you guys aren't...solo, any more. You're not two against the world. You're part of the group, after all.
"Home, James," you say, and he lets go of you to flip you off elaborately with both fingers, and reaches for the ignition.
When you get back to the apartment Jade is settled on the couch with Sollux, who is playing GTA, and Karkat, who is mostly asleep with his head on her knee.
"Success," Bro says. He has the bee tucked under his arm. It's growing on you, actually. It's that kind of desperately hideous that's almost all the way round to cute again, like baby birds. Sollux looks over the back of the couch and then drops the controller and launches himself at the two of you, wrapping around Bro's legs like a skinny little octopus and clinging. You both can't help laughing. "--Hey, hey, Sol, ease up, would you, I kinda need those legs. You're done with her, by the way. No more worrying about that lady. You're a Strider now."
"You got my bee," Sollux says, muffled, and then unpeels himself far enough to look up at Bro with bright, bright eyes. His horns are...huh, they're kind of glowing a bit, not sparking, just a sort of blue-scarlet halo around the tip of each, like St. Elmo's fire. "You found it."
"We got your bee," Bro says. "Dr. Z and Dave and I."
Sollux looks over at you and blinks and the look on his face is honestly one you haven't seen before: it's simple, sheer, unguarded happiness. "Thank you," he says.
"Pleasure's all ours, yo." You want to go on seeing that expression, it makes him look so different. Less...ill-used. "We had a little talk with her."
He finally lets go of Bro and takes the bee, hugging it just as tight. "Wath thee mad?"
"Oh hell yes. Lady was so pissed off, specially when Dr. Z started telling her all this shit about fines and community service and criminal proceedings. But Bro and I explained to her in pretty small words, you know, targeted to our audience, why she is a terrible person and should feel terrible."
"Anyway," Bro says, because Sollux is looking at you with a mixture of curiosity and shock. "You're safe here, you've got a home now, and so does your bee."
He nodnodnods and clutches the terrible bee tighter, climbing into a chair and curling up around it. Bro goes to dump his keys on the counter and get himself a Coke; you perch on the arm of the couch. "Thanks for watching them, man."
"No problem." Jade is looking down at the little curly head on her knee with the besotted expression common to people who have had Karkat fall asleep on them. "Sounds like you had quite an interesting morning."
"You could say that. Your boss is pretty scary when he wants to be."
Jade laughs. "I know. He puts on the scowl when he's dealing with assholes who want to do stuff like declaw their cats. Feferi tells him all the time that he shouldn't intimidate clients cause it makes them not want to give him any money, but he's all "my principles are inviolate." It's cute."
You snicker. "You have any trouble with Karkles?"
"Nope. He showed me around the place very officially and instructed me how to make hot chocolate with marshmallows in, and then just kind of curled up and went to sleep. The horns are lethally adorable, Dave. Like, they should have little warnings on them."
"I know. Believe me I know." You reach down to pet his curls. "Listen, Dr. Z is having a get-together at his castle of doom on Saturday. You, me, Bro, Jake if he's interested, Ms. Peixes. We're, like, actually going to do this for real."
Jade nods. "Good. I've been thinking about putting together a website for us. I just don't know what to call it. Like, with videos and stuff."
"Sarah McLachlan," you say.
"Yeah, that kind of thing. Only we don't even need to go all tearjerky with the soundtrack, all people need to see is...well, this, pretty much." She gives one of Karkat's horns a rub, and he purrs softly in his sleep. "And, like, Sollux with his bee. The story tells itself."
"You know I found him in a box, right? In the rain. With "Unwanted Free Ugly Troll" written on the side in magic marker. Every time I think of that I just..." You shrug; you don't have to tell Jade what it does to you, she knows perfectly well. "Maybe you could use that somehow."
Sollux shows no sign of wanting to put his bee down ever again, which you guess you can understand: he carries the thing around all the rest of the day, keeping it tucked in his arm while he eats celebratory pizza (Bro stopped at the good pizza place on his way home) and while he watches dumb movies with the pair of you until he's almost asleep on the couch. Karkat has been eyeing it, and him, suspiciously, for some time.
"Dave," he says, when you're getting him ready for bed. "Dave. Thollux has a bee."
"He sure does," you tell him. "Kid loves that thing."
Something's on his mind. "Why?"
"I dunno, but it means a lot to him."
Karkat shakes his head and crawls out of his pile into your lap. "--Hey, what is it, what's wrong?"
"Why I not have a bee?"
"Ohhh," you say, and pet his horns. "You can totally have a bee, little dude. Or hey, anything else." An idea occurs. "You know what an aquarium is?"
"It's this completely rad place full of awesome fish and eels and crabs and sharks and shit. And rays. And they got the best gift store. All kinds of plush animals in there, man, I bet we can find you something way better than a bee."
Karkat is staring at you in wonder. "You wanna go see the fish?" you ask. He nods enthusiastically. "Okay. We can do that tomorrow, it's the weekend. Right now it's time for Karkats to sleep."
"Don't wanna," he says, but his eyes are undeniably heavy, and after you pet his horns a little longer he doesn't protest when you tuck him into his pile.
Bro likes the idea. "I dunno if Sollux would want to go too," he says, hooking a beer out of the fridge. "If not, I'll stick around here and watch him. Not that he needs a lot of watching."
"They do let trolls in, right?" This has only just occurred to you.
"Pff. They let people with those huge doublewide strollers in, they better not have a problem with a small well-behaved troll." He yawns. "Think of it as, like. The first step in our campaign."
You don't want to have to explain to Karkles that no, actually, he doesn't get to go see the fish because the people in charge are a bunch of jerks--but this kind of thing will just keep coming up, if not the aquarium then some other place that won't let trolls in, and you might as well just jump the hell in and deal with it. "Gimme a beer, dude."
"Stunt your growth," Bro tells you, but he hands one over nonetheless. "You're gonna be a skinny little mutant forever, kid."
"Fuck you." You clink bottles with him, amiably. "Jade's working on a website, did she tell you?"
"Yeah. She and Jake are good at that stuff. Unironically good at it, I mean." Unlike you two, because wow, while you do spend a lot of time fucking around with your various sites, nobody would ever mistake you for Serious Web Designers. You notice how Bro's eyebrows relax fractionally over his shades when he talks about Jade and Jake; you've only met Jake once, but you're pretty sure your bro is crushing on him from the way he'd gone all monosyllabic and awkward. That's kind of adorable. "--We should do some videos," he's saying.
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking. Tell a couple stories, break a bunch of hearts."
"Right on." One of the things Bro does when he isn't doing sound tech stuff for his clients at work is video editing, and he's pretty good at it, even if you don't particularly want to think about the subjects of some of the videos he's done. "I want Zahhak to do the voiceover. You think he'd go for it?"
"Hey, why not? But take some footage of him with Karkat, too, that shit was unbearably cute. Karkles looks even tinier next to Zahhak." And the dude's bishie hair will no doubt appeal to a wide sector of your audience. Bro nods thoughtfully. "Ask him tomorrow at the meeting thing."
"Yeah." He swigs the last of his beer. "Fuck, I'm tired, kid, I been chauffeuring people all over creation today as well as intimidating awful bitches, I'm gonna crash."
"That was some fucking amazing awful-bitch intimidation, dude, world-class performance on that shit. Go on, go sleep, I'll make sure Sol brushes his teeth before bed. All of them."
He chuckles, and reaches over to fuck up your hair, and you protest automatically: it's such a long-established exchange. When he's gone you take your beer over to the window and look out at the night. It's raining again, chilly drops creeping down the glass after one another. Again the image of Karkat in his box comes to the surface of your mind, and again you push it away: no, no more of that, you are not thinking about that shit because that is the past and in the future there will be no more trolls in boxes in the rain, only trolls who have homes, real homes, proper ones with decent people who treat them right, god damn it.
Sollux is standing there still clutching his bee. "Hmm?"
"Um," he says. "Thank you."
"Oh, hey, it's cool. I'm glad we got your bee back, dude, that lady was bad news."
He looks at the carpet, then back up to you. "I thtill don't get it. Am I yourth now? You and Dirk'th?"
You wince. "Well, legally, I guess, yeah, but...like...consider it more like an adoption? Like, we want you to be part of this weird fucked-up family we got going on."
"I want to be yourth," he says. His horns are still doing that weird glowy thing. You think it's a good sign? Like, better than the sparks, anyway. "I want to thtay here."
"Well, good," you tell him, "'cause we want you to as well. You know we're working on setting up some kind of organization to help trolls find homes, right? And, hopefully, to help get you guys some goddamn civil rights all up ins."
"Would you be okay with telling your story for a video? I think a lot of people just don't really know much about trolls, or what happens to them, and they'd want to help if they knew what you've been through. I know it's a lot to ask."
Sollux sucks his thumb meditatively. "All of it?"
"As much as you're okay with telling."
After a moment he nods again. "Okay."
"Awesome." You smile at him; you're not wearing your shades. "Oh, hey. I'm gonna take Karkles to the aquarium tomorrow, you want to come along?"
His eyes widen, glowing. "You mean it?"
"I totally mean it, yo. Gonna show him all the bitchass sharks and rays and eels and octopuses and shit. Have you ever been?"
"No, but Caitlyn, that'th the little girl where I uthed to live, thee went a couple timeth with her thchool on field tripth. It thoundth amathing."
"It is." You finish your beer. "Totally amazing. Okay, cool, so we'll all go."
Sollux yawns hugely--his tongue really is bifurcated, that's amazing--and you have to laugh. "Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed, man. It's been a long day."
"Can," he starts, and stops, and starts again. "Can I, um, maybe have a hug?"
"Most assuredly so." Your chest hurts again, oh, god, the wariness in that question, the uncertainty, the daring fucking kills you every time, and you kneel down and wrap him tight in your arms. He clings to you and wow, the glowing horns don't zap so much as tingle when they poke your neck. You give one of them an experimental rub, and it feels warm and cool at the same time. Sollux clings tighter at that, for a moment, and when he finally lets you go he's smiling a little.
"Go on," you say, "bed," and ruffle his hair. He yawns again and pads off down the hall, and a moment later you can hear water running.
You don't....know if you can really do this, but you don't have a choice, you've never had a choice, since you first saw Karkat you had no choice at all, and one thing Bro has always told you about being a Strider is that if you don't know you can do something, you goddamn well do it anyway. That goes for first-night performances at a new gig as well as...surviving all these crazy feels you're drowning in. If Bro could do it with you, you can do it, and you will do it, and if your chest hurts a lot you will just ignore that and get on with the task at hand, that's all.
When you finally get to bed yourself you sleep heavily, deeply, and you do not dream.
now illustrated by givenclarity and cloudnotes!
In the morning Karkat is bright-eyed and talkative and demanding cheerios and juice before you're even properly awake. He's climbed onto your bed and is prodding at you and prattling about seeing fish.
"Whoa, little dude, gimme a minute to get my brain in gear," you protest and reach for your shades. It's...okay, yeah, it's lovely to see him this happy and animated, and you have to give him a hug and a hornrub and he chirps and purrs and clings to you and holy fuck you are going to die of adorable, it is too late for you, send in the fuckin' priests and start saving up for the funeral. Karkat stays attached as long as he can, but you manage to disengage long enough to get him washed up and dressed and ready for breakfast.
Bro's already up, rocking the MLP t-shirt the way no other dude can. He's made coffee and there's toast and that addictive Nutella shit for you and cheerios for Karkat. "Where's Sol?"
"Still asleep. I figured I'd let him get an extra couple minutes." Bro settles at the table with a bowl and starts trying to coax Karkat to eat with an actual spoon instead of stuffing the cereal into his mouth with both hands as if it will get away unsupervised.
You're actually done with your toast and putting your plate in the dishwasher when Sollux shuffles into the kitchen. He...doesn't look good, he's pale, he's got sparks around one set of horns and his eyes are half-closed. "Hey," Bro says. "You okay, little dude?"
He nods, clambering into a chair. "You want toast or sugar bombs?" Bro asks.
"...'m not hungry," Sollux says, rubbing at his face. "Maybe thome tea or thomething."
You and Bro exchange a look. "You sure you're feeling okay?"
"I'm fine," he insists. "I wanna go to the Aquarium."
"Well, sure, you can totally go to the Aquarium, just...you don't look so good." You reach over and put a hand on his back. "What's wrong?"
Sollux hunches up, wincing. "Nothing, I thaid, I'm fine, I jutht...." You rub his back gently and he hiccups and covers his face with his hands. "I don't wanna have a headache, I wanna thee all the fitheth and eelth and thtuff!"
"Oh, hey, kid, hey, shhh," you say, scooting your chair over to his and hugging him properly. He buries his face in your shoulder. "It's okay. It's fine. I'll take you tomorrow, if you want, we'll go look at all the cool shit and the touch pool and everything."
"Hell yeah I promise. Poor little dude." Across the table Karkat is staring in wonderment, and Bro airplanes another spoonful of cheerios to distract him. "It's totally cool. Bro will chill out here with you and you can lie down and let your head get better, and tomorrow we'll go check out the sharks."
"Yup," Bro says. "I get those headaches too, Sol, they're miserable. Dave, you wanna take over the cheerio duty and I can get him sorted out?"
You give Sollux another cuddle and let him go. He really doesn't look good, poor guy, one of his eyes is glowing brighter than the other and the smell of ozone from the sparks is pretty noticeable. "Really?" he asks Bro, head tilted.
"Yeah, really. C'mon, let's get you lying down with the lights out and an icepack." He gets up and offers Sollux his hand, and after a moment the troll bites his lip and clutches Bro's fingers tight. You watch him lead Sol off to his bedroom.
"Thollux sick?" Karkat wants to know.
"Yeah, he's not feeling well right now. He's gonna stay here with Bro."
That seems to worry him, and he peers at you through his curls. "I go to quarium?"
You come around the table and take the bowl and spoon. "You sure as hell do, little guy. Here, open wide, here comes the cheerio flight 457 heavy."
As it happens they don't give you any shit for bringing Karkat to the aquarium. There's some brief confusion over what sort of ticket he needs to get in, but he's doing his very best big-eyed staring-in-amazement thing and the ticket-booth lady just sort of melts a bit and sells you a regular kid admission sticker. He's very proud of this sticker and keeps reminding you he's got it all the way inside to the part where you go up the escalator and into the Australian outback exhibit, whereupon the fact that he just came face-to-face with a fish bigger than he is makes him stop prattling and just stare. You love this exhibit, it's pretty new, they have fruitbats and all kinds of birds flying around and these totally kickass tanks with big curved plexiglass fronts where you can look right in to see the fish and turtles and crocodiles and shit.
"Big fish," Karkat says, looking up at you. He's a little worried, but holding it together.
"Gigantic fish, yo." You hunker down and put an arm around him, and he presses close to you. "That guy's a...um, what's the thing say...a barramundi? And oh, hey, look, little dude, look, see that turtle with the really long neck?"
Karkat giggles at the snake-necked turtle with its little weird chin tentacle thingies. The crocodile spooks him a bit and he hides his face against your shoulder, but that's okay because hey look it is apparently feeding time for the cockatiels!
You fuckin' love the aquarium.
More than one fellow patron has given you a weird look, but nobody says anything until you're actually out of the Australia exhibit and having a look at the ray pool. "Excuse me," someone asks, next to your elbow. "But is that a troll?"
You're holding Karkat on a hip so he can see down over the railing into the water below; he's clinging to your jacket with one hand but most of his concentration is on the rays cruising around ten feet under you. You sigh mentally and turn to find an earnest-looking bespectacled woman with frizzy hair peering at the pair of you.
"Yup," you say, because what the fuck kind of dumb question is that, and the woman smiles anxiously. "His name's Karkat."
"He's adorable," says your interlocutor, and you feel a little less antagonistic. Karkat had stopped staring at rays at the sound of his name, and is now staring at her instead. It's amazing how owlish he can look when he wants to.
"Say hi to the nice lady, Karkat," you suggest. He looks up at you, then at her, tilts his head, and chirps "hi" to her. You're vaguely aware of other people looking at you, and are damn glad of your shades.
She gasps a little and puts a hand to her mouth. "Hello there!"
"You have glasses," he points out. "Like Dave an Bo."
"...That's right," she says. "I need them to see with." You can tell this is kind of like an amazing moment in this lady's day, and you cuddle Karkat closer. He rests his cheek against your jacket. "--How old is he?"
"I don't know. I rescued him."
"Oh," she says, and then after a moment "...I didn't know they could talk. Um."
"Yeah. A lot of people don't. But he's just a little kid, he's learning. He's got lots of words, don't you, man?"
"I know words." He is still looking curiously at the stranger. "Jade telled me words. Peese an thank you."
"She tell you anything else?" you ask.
Nodnodnod. His curls bounce. You probably ought to give the little guy a haircut, he looks like a mop. "She telled me shaking hands is p'lite."
"Shit, I gotta have Jade come over more often and teach you social niceties," you say, and the lady laughs a little, almost nervously. Karkat nods a solemn little nod.
"D'you know shaking hands?" he asks her. "You say peesedtomeetyou an you do like this." One tiny grey hand reaches out. She's totally fucking transfixed: she blinks and extends her own hand, and he wraps his fingers around one of hers and gives her hand a firm little shake. You swallow hard, jesus christ, do they stop surprising you at some point and if so when?
"Pleased to meet you too, Karkat," she says, and he nods, satisfied, and bonks his horn against your collarbone. "...Oh, my. I've never really met a troll before."
"Some friends of mine are starting a kind of troll rescue society," you tell her. "Should have a website up soon with information and like how to get involved, if you're interested." You shift Karkat a little and dig into your pocket for one of your cards, which are ironically elegant and say Dave Strider, DJ and your contact information shit on them in super curly font that you and Bro had snickered over when you picked it out online. "My twitter has like all the updates on it."
She takes the card, looks at it, at you, at your passenger, and smiles the kind of smile you don't normally get from total strangers. "Thank you, Mr. Strider. Um. Thanks. It was really good to meet you both."
You nod, cool as a goddamn cucumber, and it takes you completely by surprise when three other people who'd apparently been eavesdropping also ask you for a card.
And it doesn't stop there. You show Karkles the octopus (who kindly uncurls a few tentacles from her corner and waves them around before retreating) and the electric eels and the poison-dart frogs and the reef tank with the herds of lookdowns shimmering along like self-important obnoxious lawyers; the pufferfish who derps at you and flutters his tiny fins and nibbles on things; the vast undulating green length of the moray eel as he comes out of his crevice and GLARES (Karkat squeaks and hides his face against your shoulder), and the sharks and rays--and all along the goddamn exhibit tour you have people asking if that's a troll and oh god he's so cute and no seriously wow yeah can i get a card too. By the time you're done and heading for the gift store he's yawning, and you don't blame him, being the center of attention is way more tiring than you remember it being.
He wriggles to get down when you get to the racks and racks of plushies, and you let him, figuring he's probably not gonna run around and smash shit; in fact he walks around openmouthed, staring in awe at all the treasures this place offers. He looks intently at a stuffed hammerhead shark, a couple of really good octopuses, a squid (man, you want that squid, it's amazing, it's got a beak and a siphon and everything) and a tarantula before coming over to tug at your hand. "Dave, I found it," he says, excitedly. "I want!"
It's a bright red stuffed crab. A good one, too, with the weird little swimmy legs and the eyes on stalks. For some reason you think of course, why the hell didn't I think of that in the first place, and grin down at him. "You got it, little guy. What should we bring Sollux, though?"
Karkat looks thoughtful, and then trots over to the bookshelves, clutching his crab.
A little later you walk out with his hand in one of yours and a gift-shop bag in the other. He's still hugging the crab tight: you'd had to lift him and it up for the cashier to scan the tag at the register. "That was a good visit," you say. "Time to go home and have lunch and a nap, huh?"
"Good visit," he agrees, and squeezes your hand.
He falls asleep in the car, and he's still asleep when you park and carry him up the stairs. Bro is sprawled out on the couch with his laptop, doing something with one of his less speakable sites, and looks up when you come in.
"How'd it go?" he asks.
"Went great." You put down his car keys and the bag with Sollux's present in. "Lemme get him down for his nap, then I'll tell you all the weird shit that went down."
"The weirdest. How's Sol?"
"I think he's doing better. I checked on him a little while ago and gave him some more baby aspirin, poor guy. He was really upset that he didn't get to go."
"Yeah. I'll take him tomorrow, though, if he's feeling better. Okay, oof, jesus, Karkles, you just get heavier every damn day, I swear..."
He's worn out enough that he barely protests when you detach him and get him settled in his pile (with his crab) and go get yourself a cup of coffee. You tell Bro all about your bizarre encounters with people who wanted to meet Karkat and ask questions about him and all the people who asked to get one of your cards so they could follow you and learn about the whole campaign dealie. His eyebrows climb steadily above his shades until at last he shuts the laptop and takes them off. "Holy shit, kid, I honestly did not expect that."
"Yeah, me neither. I thought we'd get a lot more flak and a lot less oh god so cute. I mean, it helped that Karkles basically played the Adorable Trollbassador to the fucking hilt and all. I swear that lady was about to cry when he told her how to shake hands."
"I don't blame her, jeez." Bro laces his fingers behind his head, lying back. "This is good news, Dave. Good news."
"That's what I thought. Zahhak will be pleased. And Karkat picked out a thing for Sol, too, since he didn't get to come with us." You toss the bag to him, and he opens it and takes out a book about bees--Karkat had obviously gone for the giant macro shot of a honeybee on the front, but on flipping through it you'd thought it was a pretty solid piece of work, lots of pictures and useful information, and you knew Sollux had either been taught or taught himself to read.
"...dude, this is kinda perfect," Bro says.
"Yup. Pretty good morning's work, I think."
"Word. There's leftover pizza in the fridge if you want it, I figured I'd cut you some slack and not eat it all myself."
"Dude, you are a prince among men," you tell him, and he throws a cushion at you, and you escape snickering to the kitchen with a profoundly stupid smile on your face.
Sollux sleeps through the afternoon. When he finally does emerge the glow in his eyes has equalized and he's no longer fizzling sparks from one set of horns, but he looks pale and unhappy (despite the bee, which you think may have become permanently attached to him). There are wrinklemarks on his cheek from the chenille pillows that make up his pile, and your heart does a sort of queasy flop in your chest at the sight for no reason you can identify.
"Hey, Sol. How you feeling?" You're at the kitchen table with your laptop, scrolling through all the Facebook shit your morning's visit to the Aquarium has set in motion. You know you're gonna have to take some good glamor shots of Karkles and get those up, people are clamoring to see the adorable troll (who's also up from his nap and assisting Bro in doing paperwork by sitting on his lap and chewing on an executive squeezy stress ball, against your better judgment). Sollux gives a little one-shoulder shrug.
"Better, I guethth," he says. "Dirk wath really nithe to me. You guyth went to thee all the thtuff, right?"
"Yup, and I'ma take you tomorrow if you want to go." He rubs at his face. You wonder if he's going to be up for Dr. Zahhak's little war council tonight and if not which one of you should stay home with him, and then you quit wondering about logistics because he's shuffled over to sort of hesitantly look up at you, gnarly double fangs working on his lower lip. That is the expression of a troll who wants to be hugged and isn't sure he's allowed to ask, so you do him the favor of just picking him up (jesus christ he's still so bony, birdlike) and settling him in your lap.
He sighs, and rests his face against your shoulder, and you pet his hair. "We saw a lot of cool shit. And a lot of people were real interested in Karkat, wanted to come say hi to him, it was...kind of amazing, actually. And he picked something out for you at the gift shop."
Sollux makes a doubtful little noise, and you chuckle. "No, seriously. It's pretty cool. Here, come see." He's light enough for you to easily carry him through to the living room, where the bee book is sitting on top of the TV, and he stares.
"...For me?" God, it's such a tiny tiny voice, so utterly incredulous, you see his ex-owner's face again and want to punch it hard enough to hurt yourself.
"Yup, all for you." You set him gently down and he takes the book in both hands and stares at it, turning it over and over as if totally unable to believe it's real. "Karkat figured you'd like it."
"Yup. I asked him what we should bring you since you weren't feeling well and couldn't come with us this morning and he went all round the store and found that."
When Sollux looks up at you there are actual tears in his eyes--it's a weird effect, yellow over blue and red makes orange and green, sup color theory--and you kneel down and put an arm round his thin shoulders. "Hey, what's wrong, what is it?"
"N-nothing," he says and buries his face in your shirt, still clutching his present. "I jutht. Thith ith...you guyth are tho cool. All of you."
"Well, you got that right at least." You grin, hug him tight. "This is the apartment that cool built, little dude. You fit right in. Listen, do you want to come to this meeting thing tonight? Dr. Z's holding a powwow to talk about what we can do to help out more trolls. It's okay if you don't feel up to it, you don't gotta be social."
"No," Sollux says, and sniffles, and pulls back to wipe his face on his sleeve rather than your shirt. "No, that'th okay, I want to. Um. Where'th Karkat?"
"I think he's chilling with Bro."
"I wanna thay thank you." He's got the bee in one arm and the book in the other and for a moment you can see past the painful thinness and the habitual sort of defensive hunch to see a happy healthy young troll who has a god damn loving home, and it does things to your chest again. Also you might have something in your eye. Dusty in here. Gotta clean up before you take any pictures.
Zahhak's place isn't what you expected. You're not sure what you did expect, but it probably wasn't a small suburban house decorated with very little beyond a couple of small Egyptian statues and more books than you could personally spin a turntable at. Holy shit, dude must read like it's going out of style, or maybe he's just a book hoarder. You know you can't get rid of any of your vinyl, even if it's old and shitty and scratched all to hell, you keep that shit safely stashed away because tossing it is inconceivable.
Also he cooks. You were definitely not expecting that. Pizza and beer were what you had in mind, but when you and Bro and your trolls get there Peixes and Jade are helping him set the table and the whole house smells of something spicy and amazing and way more complicated than the Vaguely Middle-Eastern Or Something shit you get at the takeout sometimes on the way home from work. Sollux is overcome with shyness and clings to Bro (with his bee), but Karkat is amazed by all the new things to stare at and poke and sniff and ask questions about. He recognizes Jade and Zahhak and Peixes, but not the tall dark-haired dude with a tan who's opening a bottle of wine.
"Hi!" says dark-haired dude, putting down the Shiraz and coming over to shake hands with you (and then with Karkat, who is wide-eyed and amazed). "Jake Harley. You must be Dave. Good to meet you, and you have gotta be Karkat. Jade says you're a stern taskmaster."
Bro isn't saying anything and you smile a little at that, watching Karkat give Jake's forefinger a firm shake. "Sup. Sorry we're late, hit traffic."
"Hi, Jake," Karkat says. "Jade teached me things."
"She did. To great effect, I gotta say. Man, Jade, you should've seen the people at the Aquarium. Go on, Karkles, tell 'em all about it."
He looks up at you, for a moment unsure, and you give him a nod--and he tugs Jake over to the table and starts regaling him with the saga of your morning's adventures. You look over at Bro, who is ever so faintly pink around the earlobes, and he looks back with his most unreadable shade-armored expression, before you go to see if you can help the others with dinner.
For the most part conversation is limited to your standard please-pass-the and oh-my-god-this-is-really-good exchanges until everyone's had a second helping of Zahhak's unpronounceable but amazing vegetable curry (he'd held back on the hardcore spice for the sake of the trolls, but the lime and mango pickles on offer more than make up for that). It makes you realize how much you and Bro really do rely on super basic unimaginative shit like mac and cheese, sandwiches, pizza, Chinese, all that kind of no-effort food. Maybe that's something else you could learn to be okay at, besides sick beats and troll reassuring. You at least consider exploring the possibility.
Sollux and Karkat are allowed to get down from the table and go play in the living room while the rest of you talk: Sollux has brought his book, and Karkat is apparently content to trundle his plush crab around the carpet and talk to it, or possibly narrate. You keep looking over at them, and they keep being just fine.
Zahhak notices, and he smiles at you; you can feel yourself flush. "I can't help it, man. The whole first week I was like 'oh shit is he still breathing' and having to go check."
"It does get easier, I gather. You're already making great strides, to pardon an unpardonable pun. But the Aquarium--tell me what sort of responses you've been getting on Facebook and Twitter so far?"
You tell him. There's your standard sprinkling of jackasses, but you expect those. Mostly it's been people going OH MY GOD SO CUTE and keyboardsmashing, the kind of shit you expect when people post pictures of stuff on cats, but there's been a decent proportion of actual posts in English saying hey, I'm interested in learning more, do you guys have any brochures or whatever.
"I've got the basic site structure together," Jade says, snagging the last poppadom before you can. "We need content, though. Dave, Dirk, you guys gotta do some videography. And pick up all the swords and shit first."
"Aw, man, and I was gonna have those on display. And maybe some open liquor bottles and a couple ashtrays." You put on your best disappointed-face, and she snickers. "Way ahead of you, Harley. Unless you want us to do some footage in the clinic too."
"It might be a good idea," Peixes--Feferi, you remind yourself, she's Feferi, and she and Dr. Z are either a thing or totally going to be a thing in the near future--puts in. "Have Equius holding Karkat and talking to the camera."
Dr. Z clears his throat, a low rumble. "I believe you would be a more suitable subject. You can even wear the stethoscope."
"Nah, man, she's right," Jake says. "I mean, sure, Jade and Feferi too, but you gotta do that stern talking-to-people thing. It'll work." You have to admit it would. The combination of Karkat being as adorable as it is possible to be and Zahhak being huge and intimidating (and bishie-haired) will bring in the campaign donations like crazy.
"I can borrow one of the good cameras from work," Bro says, the first thing he's added to the conversation in a while. You think he's glad everyone's used to him wearing the shades at all times; you think he's finding them of particular comfort right now, and you want to reach under the table and prod his foot with yours in a distractingly obnoxious sort of way, but refrain. "--I think Feferi and Jake are right, Dr. Z. Do a couple PSA speech moments in the exam room, and maybe keep you as the voiceover as we move into some shots of the trolls at home. If that's cool with you, I mean."
"Certainly, if you think it's going to be effective." He blinks, and by the expression on Feferi's face she just nudged his foot under the table. God damn that's cute. "--Er. There's pie for dessert, if anyone is interested. That I can't claim credit for, it's Feferi's work."
"I found the good apples at the market," Feferi tells the table, beaming. You are beginning to realize that shit's for real, she honestly does like the world as much as she appears to, and it's kind of amazing. "No, sit down, I'll get the dishes."
Bro offers to help, and you again find yourself awash in the crazy awareness of being part of a larger collective, not just the two of you against the world.
You discuss fundraising over pie and ice cream. Karkat and Sollux had come back to the table for their fair share, and Karkat is drowsing contentedly in your lap having had pie crumbs removed from his ears, jesus christ the kid is an enthusiastic eater. Sollux is still picking at the crumbs on his plate, but by the dimness of his eye-shine you think he's probably going to crash soon himself--and you don't blame him, you're tired as hell. It's been a long and eventful day.
"--Kickstarter," Jade is saying. "Or Indiegogo or one of the other crowdfunding sites. Judging by the response Dave got from one brief public appearance we're not gonna have much difficulty getting people interested. Feferi, can you maybe come up with a real basic budget for stuff we're going to need to have--like, medical supplies, space, printing costs, that kind of thing? I can pretty much quote you what the hosting cost is gonna look like but I'm no office manager."
"The other thing is time," Bro says. "And transportation. Dave's got this cushy night job three nights a week--" you flip him off--"but I'm nine to five and we only got one car. You guys all have full-time jobs."
"Except me." Jake leans back in his chair, looking kind of like an ad for expensive safari-themed casual wear. "I'm taking the semester off grad school."
"I was hoping you'd say that," says his sister. "Kind of why I got you to come with me tonight."
"Pff, I was already gonna volunteer after what you told me, but yeah, getting to meet the little guys pretty much makes it a done deal." He looks over at Karkat in your arms, and Sollux drooping sleepily in his chair. "I got a car--nothing fancy, but she runs, and I can fetch and carry." He actually flexes a bicep, and you have to grin.
"We still need space," Jade points out. "The clinic isn't really set up to handle much by way of boarders. And, well, I guess Bec's kind of problematic for allergy reasons."
"I don't want to ask you two to take on any more trolls," Zahhak says to you and Bro, "you're already doing quite a lot of work. But perhaps we could put out a call for volunteers. It sounds as if there's some genuine interest in the community."
"Jade, you want to do the Facebook for this or should I put one up?" you ask.
She looks at you. "I can, but...oh jeez, what are we even gonna call it?"
All of you sort of realize at the same time that your grand work lacks a title. "Um," you say.
"Association for the Advancement of Troll Personhood?" Jade offers, and then has to giggle.
"Caring People United for Troll Welfare?" That's Feferi.
"People for the Ethical Treatment of Trolls?" Zahhak, and a moment later "--ugh, no, the acronym would be PETT."
"Let's go simple," you suggest. "SPCT. Or just Troll Rescue Society."
"I like Troll Rescue Society," Jake says.
"Me too. Use that as the subtitle and have the official tax purposes name be Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Trolls." Bro reaches over as Sollux nods over his plate and steadies him: Sollux makes a sleepy little noise and wriggles into his lap, where he promptly dozes off. All of you watch this, saying nothing: nothing needs to be said.
"I think that's pretty much settled," says Dr. Z. "Anyone for coffee?"
I would like to take the opportunity to say a) that I appreciate everyone who has commented or left kudos on this story, and b) that I do know it is inherently problematic on a number of levels. Other, far more talented writers have begun to address those levels head-on, and I suggest you go to read the wonderful Loophole by saccharineSylph if you want to see what a fighting-ring Vriska might look like in this verse.
I would also like to say that I know my approach to this material is not to everyone's taste, and that while I am trying to steer this story in a positive direction I am aware that thus far my efforts do not satisfy everyone. I don't know if they can.
If I offend or have offended anyone with this material, I would like to apologize to them now, and ask them to contact me directly to let me know what it is I've done that specifically does not sit right. I can't guarantee that I can write the story to encompass everyone's direction, but if I offend, please do let me know about it. I'm not out to anger or to hurt anyone, and if I do, I need to know about it, so I can avoid doing so in future.
Thank you, and I hope this makes up for a long period without updates.
p.s. thank you rainbowbarnacle, you are the best of betas
You take Sollux to the Aquarium. He's sleepy and sparky and slow in the morning, but if you hand Karkat to Bro (immediate snugglecling with tucking of small ruffled head under his chin) you can get some cereal and a cup of tea into Sol. Bro is waiting for Jake Harley to show up and give him a ride to work, so you can drive the Buick; and because you're in a good mood and because you do kind of sort of maybe not dislike your brother a whole bunch you don't mention how nervous he seems, drifting from here to there, aimlessly picking things up and putting them down. Karkat wants bananas, which gives him something to do, and you can see the relief.
"Ith it gonna be crowded?" Sollux wants to know.
"Probably. Not super bad, though, we're getting there early. I promise, shit gets to be too much, just tell me and we're out of there, okay?" He looks so goddamn thin, even though you've got him clothes that fit, and his eyes are vast and undeniably lambent. The difference between him and the chirpy enthusiastic Karkles is...well. It's a thing. You keep all of this out of your face and your voice as you coax him to finish his bowl of Part of A Nutritious Breakfast.
Bro waves you away when you go to do the dishes. "I'll get that. You just head in before the big crowds show up, okay? Harley is supposed to get here any minute, he'll take me and Karkat to my work and then watch the kid while you and Sol gallivant about with sealife."
"Word," you say, and go get your jacket on. Sollux looks...very apprehensive indeed, and once you've closed the apartment door behind the two of you, you kneel down to look him in the bizarre-ass eyes. "What's up?"
"A-are you thure you want to do thith?"
"Be theen. With me."
You flop back on your heels and you reach for him and hug him tight. "Hell yes I am sure. I am very sure. If you don't wanna go, that's fine, but, Sol, fuck, no, being seen with you is not something I'm worried about."
He presses his pointy face briefly against your shoulder and hiccups once or twice, but pulls away. "Okay."
You've already made sure you have the pills Zahhak prescribed for his head-storms, and the others for anxiety, tucked securely away in your jacket pocket. Now you unfold yourself, getting up like a jointed ruler bit by bit, and when you hold out your hand to him Sollux's chilly little fingers grab yours tight.
He has to ride in the back seat, and you more than once catch a glimpse of him in the rearview looking like he's not feeling so hot, but nothing untoward happens. When you get to the Aquarium ticket offices the lady is, thank fuck, the same one who sold you and Karkles tickets, and she beams to see another troll with you. This time there's no discussion of what sort of ticket Sollux needs: he gets a child admission sticker (he's hiding most of the way behind your leg during the transaction, you have to put it on him on the walk to the Aquarium building proper).
You almost scrub the whole mission because he looks so frightened and so thin and so small, but once you're past the awkward gauntlet of the ticket-taking people and the photo booth (no, you tell the photographer, no, it's okay, we're not interested) he seems to relax a little. He's still darting suspicious glances around as if expecting to discover his previous owner lurking behind some display or other, but after you show him the first couple of exhibits in the Australia section you can see that fade out of his mind.
Sollux can smile. Like, really smile. It looks kind of weird with his gnarly dual fangs but it's the sweetest fucking expression you think you've seen in a long time. He presses his small hand flat against the glass of the big river tank--not banging or tapping on the glass, just touching it--and when one of the funky long-snouted turtles comes over to investigate he squeaks softly and you just can't not squat down beside him and give him a little one-armed hug.
He is equally astonished by the giant fishes and the fucking crocodiles omg and when you point out the bats far overhead his eyes go wide and brighter and he fists his hands in your shirt and makes a little rattly noise that has the edges of a purr. The many brightly-colored birds get solemn two-tone stares.
By now there are enough other patrons that you're getting curious looks, and a part of you aches because now it's not going to just be you and Sol looking at stuff, it's going to be you and Sol being looked at, and you wish to fuck you could just insulate him from that, you don't know how he'll handle it. Still, you put your best game face on and when he starts lagging behind at the end of the Australia exhibit you ask if he wants a ride, and at his nod you lift him to perch on your nonexistent hip, hugging him to you with one arm. That feels better. That feels like you're offering more protection.
They're feeding the sea turtle in the ray exhibit when you get there, and the two of you watch bobbing lettuce fragments swirl and dip as she plays with her breakfast. Compared to Sol she is the size of a house, and you can see he's a little intimidated by her beak, but the wonder of the rays flying along ten feet under your vantage point distract him. Unprompted, he reads out--carefully--the names of the species on the little information plaque. He has to sound some of them out, and frankly you don't know how the fuck to pronounce Rhinoptera bonasis yourself, so when you tell him "Good job" you really mean it.
He's less taken with the estuary and tidal exhibits, but he really digs the octopus--and he really really digs the electric eels. His horns crackle with sudden blue-red sparks and his eyes go wide and he reaches out to touch the glass front of their tank--only he doesn't quite touch it, he runs his fingers along what look to you like invisible curves or lines in the air, drawing them with his fingertips. You are aware that your hair is trying real hard to stand on end like the time Bro took you to the Science Center when you were a kid and you touched that weird ball-on-a-stick generator thingy. "...Sol?"
"I can thee them," he murmurs.
"The lineth. The fieldth. It'th like they have pthionicth too."
Whoa. You hadn't thought of that, but hey, maybe electric eels are the gross slimy eely versions of psionic trolls. Both of them can zap you pretty good. The eels seem just as interested in Sol as he is in them: they come out of their normal lazy-ass hiding spaces and swim right up to the glass, following those lines he's drawing in the air with their blunt tiny-eyed faces.
"...Can they, like, feel your powers too? Sense your presence?" Is this shit like the Force?
"I think tho. They're not very powerful but they can...thenth me. Maybe not thee."
The crackling noise over the exhibit speakers--the electrical activity these guys are putting out--is going up and up and you can tell people are wondering what the deal is: you're starting to get an audience. Abruptly Sol leaves off staring at force-lines only he (and maybe the eels) can see, and huddles against your leg in a sudden access of violent shyness. You scoop him up, and he hides his face in your shoulder. "--Hey, hey, little man, it's all good, you're okay, you're cool--" you rub his back--"we'll just wait here till the crowd passes, yeah?" In this corner where you can glare at people.
He nods against you, and you go on stroking his back, hoping this is as bad as it gets. It isn't.
After the crowd of people has moved on, Sollux talks to the eels some more, and you swear to god he actually giggles a tiny bit when one of them does a sort of loop-the-loop at his gesturing command--have you ever heard him do that before? Did you even know he could? It's like watching a snail come out of its shell, cautiously, bit by bit, poking at the world to make sure it isn't going to bite him.
Which is why you really want to open several family-sized cans of GO THE FUCK AWAY on the much bigger crowd that catches up to you halfway down the spiral reef tank. They're--to their credit--interested in Sollux, excited to see him, rather than going "why do you have a troll in here is that allowed" or "what is it," which would be worse. They ask you questions, you hand out your cards. You're running low. Sol is not Karkatian in terms of Adorable Ambassatroll performance: he doesn't offer to shake hands, replies to questions in monothyllableth, and after a few minutes of this when you hear his breathing start to take on a faint whistle and he looks up at you with wide eyes, you are so very glad to see someone diving in the tank. "Hey look! Dude's feeding the fish!"
Dude is, in fact, feeding the fish, some kind of gigantic motherfucker with a weird flattish face that appears to be extremely enthusiastic about this process. It is totally sucking on his fingers. That is cute. And disturbing.
The little kids, less interested in the troll than their adult companions, squeal and tug and scamper, and thank God the diver guy is mugging outrageously at his audience. It's not difficult for you to sidle away and hurry down the rest of the spiral to the comforting darkness at the bottom, where you can see right into the rays' tank.
Sollux is gasping a little, clutching at your sleeve. "You need one of the anxiety pills, dude?"
"...yeth." Tiny, tiny voice. Your heart hurts. You get the pills out and fish a bottle of water from your backpack, and let him curl up in your lap watching the slow silent flight of the rays. His breathing eases after several minutes, but you don't move until he sits up on his own and snrfles, rubbing at his face. "Um. Thorry."
"Shhhh." You hug him, tucking his head under your chin, heedless of the sparklecrackles from his horns. "Shh. Nothing to be sorry for, man. Nothing at all. You feeling any better?"
He nods against you. "Cool. Wanna stay here for a bit, watch the rays? Look, that one's flying right along the glass, you can see its weird underside with all the gills or whatever."
The little ones like to riffle along the edge of the tank: the bigger ones appear, vast, silent, out of nowhere, and glide along like cloudshadows out of view again. It's hypnotic. Now and again a shark will swim past, its staring dead eyes making you shiver happily as it cuts through the water. There are all kinds of different sharks and rays in here, as well as the huge sea turtle, and you think it's kind of weird and kind of awesome how they aren't all biting chunks out of each other, or even fighting at all. Just swimmin'. Coexisting.
The point is not lost on you, and you look down at Sollux's dark head, watch him follow the flight of the rays, rapt, and you are for a moment fiercely angry again--and then sad--but mostly just determined. Your little band can't be the only ones out there willing to fight for trolls. There's got to be others. There's got to be.
By the time another horde of preschoolers shrieks and gabbles its way to where you are, Sol's breathing is back to normal. He's sleepy from whatever it was Dr. Z prescribed for the anxiety attacks, but when you mention the magic words gift shop he perks right up. "Go check it out, dude. See if there's anything that speaks to you."
It is not a huge surprise when he comes back holding out a stuffed electric eel, proudly, silver electrical-field lines embroidered on its sides under ruffly chiffon fins. It's perfect. You wonder briefly if his much-traveled bee will be jealous, but decide that's entirely up to Sol.
You'd meant to take him for ice cream or something after the Aquarium, but he's so worn out and so dopey that you just head for the Starbucks drive-thru with him sleeping deeply in the back seat, and get yourself a mocha and him a decaf caramel frappuccino for later. Driving back, looking in the rearview at him drooling slightly on himself, you are again aware of one of those powerful, undeniable waves of terrified tenderness that had so overwhelmed you with Karkat. They don't seem to fade with time, but at least now you know they do let go and let you think again, eventually.
When you get back Jake Harley has a dishtowel tied round his head like a pirate's bandanna and is apparently teaching Karkat how to go arrrrrrrrr. This is adorable. You also foresee the next several weeks being extremely heavy on the pirate theme, and kind of want to glower at Harley, but Karkat looks so gleeful you can't really mind too much. "Hey," you say, hoisting a sleeping Sollux higher on your hip. "He been behaving himself?"
"Hey, Dave! Yeah, we've been having a great time. How was the Aquarium?"
"Pretty damn cool. A lot of people, Sol got kind of frightened, but it's okay now. Can you stick around while I get him down for a proper nap?"
Harley nods, and is leapt upon by Karkat, and you carry Sol off to his room on a tide of their mingled laughter.
When the phone rings an hour or so after Harley has gone, you are kind of wishing for a nap yourself. You let it go for three rings before picking the damn thing up. "Strider residence."
"Dave." It's Dr. Z, and you are awake suddenly and completely. "I have some interesting news."
"...you mean interesting as in interesting, or interesting as in oh shit?"
"It's possible that both apply," he says drily. "I've received communication from an individual claiming to be a troll and a pro-troll activist."
"An emancipated troll?"
"Just so. I don't quite know whether to believe this is genuine or dismiss it as some sort of extremely well-timed prank, but I'm forwarding his email to you and the others."
"What's he say?"
You hear Zahhak take a patient breath rather than repeating that he's forwarding the damn email to you, which you appreciate. "He wants to meet with us. He has...demands."
"Yes. He is quite outspoken and self-assured. Although he types oddly. I think the V and W keys on his computer must be stuck, and despite his vocabulary he doesn't seem to comprehend the function of the capital letter."
"...oy," you say. "He sounds amazing, all right. Okay. I'll talk to Bro, look at this dude's email, we'll get back to you, but if you think he's legit, hey, don't wait for us to respond."
"Very well," says Zahhak. "Thank you. Jade informs me the new website is going live this evening. This is moving remarkably fast."
"Yeah. Like it was waiting for a reason to get started."
He doesn't reply immediately. "...Well said. I must get back to work."
God, you are tired, you think as you hang up the phone. You are tired as all squiddlyfuck but you are also more excited than you have been in a very long time.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Subject: your troll rescue society attempt
so its come to my attention that you people are tryin to start some kind a troll wwelfare society or similar
shit sounds dowwnright laudable on the face a it but can i just ask if on your board a directors alwways assumin you havve such a govvernin body there is perhaps an actual troll
one wwho is not functionally retarded an capable a rational discourse
cause no matter wwhat you might imagine wwe trolls can function abovve the intellectual levvel a your standard irish setter
an i personally wwould like to say that wwhatevver you havve in mind for policy changes at the local or regional levvel needs to be run past a fuckin panel a actual trolls
wwe do exist outside a humans houses
please contact me at your earliest convvenience to discuss
You look up from the forwarded message. "Wow, purple Courier. And consistent spelling fuckups. Could still totes be some asshat wanting to mess with us, but it might be legit."
Bro sighs, rubs at the back of his neck. "He wants to talk to Dr. Z. That's prolly best. Dr. Z has, like, a way with people."
"This guy's not too cool with his terminal Gs, either," you say, and shut the computer. In a way you've been longing for this, and in a way you've been afraid of it: the moment when what you're trying to do is called into question by the trolls themselves. Are you making shit worse, you wonder. How did you not know there were emancipated trolls already?
Okay, well, there was no reason for you to. Until a couple weeks ago you didn't think about trolls at all. Now they're...your world, more or less, give or take.
"I'm pretty sure Dr. Z is gonna want to set up a meeting with this caligulawhatever troll dude. But I want to be there too."
"You should be." Bro looks directly at you, surprising you off balance. "You were the one to rescue Karkat in the first place. This whole thing started with you."
It's hard not to side-eye and look for routes of escape, it's nature by now. Bro reaches out and squeezes your shoulder, making you stay to listen. "I mean it, kid. For better or worse, this whole production started when you picked up Karkles out of that box."
"I couldn't leave him there," you protest, but he waves you quiet.
"No, you couldn't, and because you couldn't we're here now and we got the foundations of somethin' that might be of serious help to the disenfranchised." He takes off his hat, runs his hand through the spikes of hair, resettles it. "But, kid, this ain't like savin' the whales. These trolls, they have questions we can't answer. They're people. It's gonna be complicated as fuck workin' out how the politics should flow. We can rescue 'em from shitty situations, but then what? Where do they go once they're all fixed up? What about the ones who ain't cute little snugglebundles anymore? I think this Ampora guy might have some useful shit to suggest on that subject."
"I hope so." All at once everything seems so fucking heavy, you just wanted to pick up the little miserable shivering troll from his awful box and get him warm and dry and safe, and...shit had snowballed from there. You lean against the kitchen table, arms wrapped around yourself, and Bro does not come to hold you: you think Bro is feeling much the same himself.
You get some solid work in on your music for an hour, two hours, because if you tried to do anything requiring much concentration other than that you'd end up throwing shit at the wall and cursing up a storm. As it always does, the world recedes to a comfortable distance the second you slip the cans on and power up your boards.
This track is a weird almost classical effort, synth strings above and behind the heavier thrumming rhythms, and you're mixing in a sample of Karkat's purr because it's got harmonics you have never heard before and it's the kind of sound you think has a shitton of possibilities inside of it. At some point Bro sets a cup of coffee by your elbow and retreats again; it's cold by the time you come out of your focus, but you drink it thirstily anyway and feel a little more human afterward.
Sollux, in the doorway. You turn, rubbing at your face. "Yeah, dude?"
"Are you okay?"
Awww. You hook your headphones over the lamp and give him a smile. "I'm cool. Just messing with some tracks. What's up?"
He comes over, hesitant, huge eyes lambent in the gloom, and you pat your knees: c'mon up. It is possible you will never get used to the sensation of a small fragile person curling up in your lap, and you think you're okay with that. "Dirk thaid a troll thent you an email."
"Yup. Some guy called Ampora. He wants to talk to us about what we're doing and where we want to go with it." You give one of Sollux's smaller horns a rub. "Frankly I'm kinda relieved, you know? This is not...well, it's not all us, is the thing. We don't know what's best, but we wanna find out and do it, whatever it is."
Sol nudges his head at your hand, and you go on petting his horn. "I'm thcared."
"Scared of what?"
"...everything?" He sounds very small. "It'th jutht. Everything'th weird now. Everything'th changing."
"Yeah," you say, "everything is," but you think you can understand: for his entire short life this kid has been a possession, a badly-treated and unwanted possession, and now in the space of a few weeks his whole concept of order and primacy has been shoved through a blender. "I'm not gonna lie, this is likely to get weirder before it gets better, but...you know whatever happens you're safe with us, right? Whatever happens. If we end up getting locked in some kind of bullshit legal battle, or if it turns out Ampora has friends who don't want us to do what we've been doing, whatever, we'll figure that shit out when it happens, but no matter what you and Karkles are safe here. This is you guys's home."
He clings to you, pressing his face against your shirt, and you hug him tight. "Best-case scenario, we meet with this guy and he's like okay there's this great underground movement of trolls already, we want to work with you and whoever else you can drum up to join the cause, we lobby for major changes in the law, civil rights for trolls, all that good shit; but that's not gonna happen overnight, and it will be stressful, Sol, but...we're gonna do it the best we can, cause it needs to be done, and you are never ever gonna be anyone's goddamn pet ever again."
You didn't know trolls came in purple. Well, you had a vague idea there were some weird extra-decorative kinds, like..ugh, shit, you realize that this is a bad thought to have had, like those fancy goldfish with all the extra fins and frills and so on, but...
This one has little violet-tinged fins on the sides of his head, as it happens, and his horns are jagged zigzags sticking out of swept-back hair. He has a weird kind of Harry Potter scar on one side of his forehead, which you are not actually sure if it's real or not, and he is wearing a V-neck t-shirt under a battered leather jacket and the kind of skinny jeans you are used to seeing at the club. And one of those insufferable hipster scarves that you think originally used to be reserved for rich Arab dudes. He is also smoking what looks like a Pall Mall, despite the fact that you are in a goddamn vet's office. Faint curls of smoke appear to be rising from the sides of his chest, which is fucking weird as all hell.
His name is Cronus and he is probably the troll equivalent of seventeen or so, and all in all he's blown your frigging mind.
"...so I get that this ain't what you might call a glitterin' metropolis a culture an' civilization or whatever," he's saying, and his Vs and Ws are emphasized just a little too much on top of what almost sounds like a faded Irish brogue, "so I ain't surprised how ignorant you people really are. No offense, a course. Ain't your fault you're human."
You and Bro exchange glances.
"Mr. Ampora," says Dr. Z. "We're eager to hear what you have to say." He's got the thunderous look around the eyebrows that means he's not shouting but he wants to, and you think it's partly the attitude and partly the ash Ampora has just scattered all over his clean exam table. He leans over to the counter and finds a stainless-steel basin, sets it beside the troll.
"Ah, thanks. So, thing is, there's enclaves a enlightened society where they embraced the radical notion that trolls are people, see? Not many a them. An' not well-known, cause the religious an' cultural right-wing majority a this country would fuckin' howl their heads off at the very idea." Vvery. "But a couple a rich-ass benefactors made it possible for some a us to live free lives. I got bought an' freed pretty young, my cousin Eridan's still owned, but he's just a kid still, an' the lady what owns him ain't a bad sort."
Cronus Ampora chains another Pall Mall and enlarges on his theme. Mostly out on the west coast, where progressive ideas are more cordially embraced, there's more than one small community of bought-and-freed trolls living with one another. When they can, they save up to buy and free more. It's never been on the news cause, well, as Ampora says, the talk-radio 700 Club contingent would flip its collective shit halfway to the moon and back, but the numbers are growing. "So when we heard about your little operation here, we were pretty interested," he finishes. "Cute website. Real cute. Like the voice-over shit from Doc Z here. What we wanna know is, where you plannin' on takin' it?"
"We--" Bro starts, and Dr. Z rumbles something, but you cut over top of them.
"We weren't sure," you say, honestly, and spread your hands. "Shit just kinda snowballed. We were hoping to make it at least work to rescue abused trolls and find, like, foster homes for them where they would be safe, but...the bigger picture thing, how to change the underlying problems with troll rights and stuff..."
"You got any rich friends with political influence?" He takes a drag and again you can see smoke raftering up from the sides of his chest, seeping through the thin fabric of his shirt. That is really fucking unsettling. "Know anyone who's got dirty pictures a the local lawmakers?"
"Not exactly," says Dr. Z. "But the response we've had so far to the website has been far beyond anything we could have hoped. The two public outings Dave undertook with Karkat and Sollux appear to have caught the attention of a wide range of people."
"Some a whom might have deep pockets?"
"We were hoping so. But what you said in your email, that we need troll advisors, is absolutely correct." Dr. Z is eyeing the cigarette. "Would you be able to recommend anyone to join our--as you put it--board of directors?"
"Consider this my official offer a volunteerin'," says Ampora, and the effect of his pointy shit-eating grin is somewhat marred by a cough. Purple rises in his face. "--Scuse me. What do you say, can I get in on this action or what?"
You wonder vaguely what Karkat and Sollux would make of this guy--and glance at your colleagues. Dr. Z is doing his best Easter Island and Bro is as deadpan as you've ever seen him, but you think both of them are pretty much on the same page, and you offer the troll a hand. "Hell, welcome aboard."
He parks the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and shakes your hand firmly. He's cold to the touch, much cooler than either of the trolls you've touched, and his skin is smoother, almost frictionless. Like Karkat and Sollux, his nails are yellow, but unlike theirs, his are filed to points. "Now that that's settled," he grins, slithering off the exam table, "how about you throw me a introduction to that fine figure a womanhood I saw at the front desk on my way in?"
On the other hand, this might have been the worst idea you've had in weeks.
TG: yo jade
TG: just a heads up
TG: we got us a troll advisor for the society
TG: name of ampora
TG: he talks in purple and chainsmokes in front of dr z and put the most unsmooth goddamn move i ever saw on ms peixes i mean this was some impressive crash-and-burn shit
TG: like hindenburg level fail
TG: oh the trollmanity
TG: when he meets you hes probably gonna try it on
TG: be forewarned
GG: hahahahahaha thanks!
GG: wait so he's an adult?
TG: thats arguable
TG: but yeah
TG: apparently there are tiny communities of freed trolls where they can like grow up and not have to deal with bullshit all the time
TG: they were pretty interested to hear what we were up to
TG: next steps basically try and secure financial backing for a lobbying effort
GG: sounds good!
GG: have no fear, dave, i am well prepared to deal with skeevy come-ons >:)
TG: ok ttyl gonna take the kids out for ice cream
TG: maybe swing by the park if sols up to it
TG: <3 right back atcha
There is a reason Cronus types with Eridan's quirk and it isn't "I can't stand Cronus's quirk." Be of good cheer.
Watching Ampora attempt to put the moves on Ms. Peixes had been sort of like watching someone walk into a screen door. You almost felt sorry for the guy, douchey as he is--he'd led off with some bullshit line about had they met before, she reminded him of this friend of his from back home, only much hotter--and she'd smiled kindly at him and firmly shaken his hand and welcomed him to the group. Which would have been the end of it if he'd been remotely perceptive, but you figure this dude's strong point is not picking up on nonverbal conversational cues. He'd draped himself on the desk, one elbow cocked, as if it were a bar, and actually waggled his eyebrows at her.
Dr. Z had not been a happy enormous thundercloud of a guy, and it might've gone badly for Ampora had his little cigarette cough not reasserted itself at that moment: Ms. Peixes came round the desk and patted him maternally on the shoulder, all caring concern. "You should really take care of yourself, dear," she'd said, or words to that effect, and wow, he'd been blushing the exact color of grape jelly, and those weird fin thingies had drooped disconsolately floorward.
Crash and fuckin' burn. On the way home you'd looked up troll morphology, and found out he was most likely one of the marine subspecies, which meant he had gills, what the hell, was that why he'd been exhaling through the sides of his chest? Fun times, friends and neighbors, fun times.
You had taken Karkat and Sollux down to the ice-cream place. To your considerable delight, Sol seemed to be okay with spending a little time in the park: he'd sat on a bench and worked diligently on his blue-raspberry/fruit-punch double popsicle, watching you push Karkat on the swings. The three of you had gotten a few stares, but nobody had asked any tiresome questions, and nobody had pointed. You think pointing is the fucking worst. Anyway, they'd gotten some fresh air and exercise, which you think is good for them, and it had been easy enough to get Karkat down for a nap when you'd finally got back to the apartment.
Tonight is a work night. Jake is supposed to come over and watch them; you're getting a little bit less anxious about the prospect of leaving them with other people, but it's taking time. It helps, of course, that Jake H. is so very obviously the joy of your bro's desiring, you can't not like the dude, even if he seems pretty clueless about the effect he's having. That means you can actually focus on what you're planning to bring to the club, and you wonder if your new track is close enough to being done that you could consider giving it a first spin in public. It is, in fact, nearly time to pack up and get your ass out the door when your phone buzzes. Incoming text message from...
Heh, wow. Dude does not waste any time. You watch purple text scroll up your screen.
CA: you seem like the kinda guy wwhos got his finger on the pulse a wwhatevver excuse for a nightlife this burg can offer, sport
CA: howw about helpin a felloww out
CA: wwhat do you do round here for fun
You are so fucking tempted to tell him he types like a complete tool. Also, sport?
TG: not much
TG: watching old reruns of qvc specials is a popular pastime
TG: model airplane building
TG: sorting oatmeal by flake size
CA: im fuckin dyin a boredom here
CA: literally expirin
CA: life a this troll is in your hands chief
CA: its up to you
TG: you always this desperate when you text total fucking strangers
TG: or should i be flattered
TG: anyway g2g im working tonight
CA: wworkin at wwhat
TG: top secret
TG: matter of national security you understand
CA: cmon chief wwere all on the same team together noww
CA: hook me up wwith somethin to do thats more interestin than wwatchin the ceilin fan go round
TG: no can do
TG: sorry ampora
TG: also piece of advice
TG: stay clear of peixes
TG: unless you want dr z to unscrew your head
CA: ...wwoww ok
TG: hella awkward
TG: later dude
You have to wonder where the hell he's even staying. How does a troll travel alone across the country? Is there some kind of Troll Underground Railroad? The thought makes you wince.
Harley is there when you've finished packing up your shit. "Hey," you say. "They had ice cream, so probably dinner isn't gonna be a huge hit, maybe just offer them some snacks. I should be home by like two-thirty, but Bro'll be back long before that."
"Cool," he says. "I brought over some more books and movies and stuff."
"You are the best, Jake, it is so completely you."
About three hours later you have rescinded this opinion, because who the fuck should you see weaving his way toward you through the club throng but a guy in a fringed scarf and way the hell too much hair product who also happens to have orange zigzag horns.
How the hell did Cronus Ampora find you? It has to have been Jake, he must've called the home number and got Jake to tell him where you were. God damn it. You're in the middle of a fucking set, you can't just stop what you're doing and deal with a hipster douche of a troll.
You're going to have to. He's squirmed all the way through to your table, and you think he's going to demand your attention, but all he does is set a glass down, give you that shit-eating grin (is he wearing lipstick? survey says almost certainly yes) and shimmy away again. He's...whoa, he's dancing?
You catch yourself just before you miss a transition, and focus on your job.
When you can take a break, slipping the cans down around your neck, you investigate what he's brought you, and it is...huh. It is in fact what you always ask for when you spin here: Coke with Rose's lime juice in it. You wonder briefly if he's added a troll roofie, and then snicker, and take a long swig.
"You're popular here, chief," he says from right behind you, and you jump--but manage not to yelp.
"Jesus fuck, dude, what are you even doing here?" In the lurid spinning half-light his purple earfins look even weirder. He's also put what looks like Silly Bandz round one horn.
"Havin' a good time, what's it look like?" Okay, he just waggled his eyebrows at you, and you have to stare back. "Wanna dance?"
"Are you coming on to me?"
"Wow, for a human you are kinda dense, Strider," says Cronus. "I even bought you a drink. How about it?"
"Don't take this the wrong way, but worlds of no."
"Figured it couldn't hurt to ask," he says, but you think the earfins are drooping.
"...Do you literally hit on every single person you meet?"
"Not every single person. That guy Zahhak, for instance. Not really my type."
You have to snort laughter at that. "Yeah, well, I don't think you're his either. You actually, I dunno, find humans attractive?"
"Worth a shot." Leer. You're beginning to see the edges of a vast and somewhat risible desperation, even as you feel increasingly slimy. "Why, you don't think trolls are hot?"
"Dude. The only trolls I've actually known are little kids. Ew."
"Oh yeah, right. Still!" He gives you that grin again. You wonder if all seatrolls have teeth like that or if he's had them professionally sharpened. The idea of making out with that appeals about as much as the idea of sticking your foot in a bacon slicer. "Tryin' new things is good for you, sport."
"Yeah, I'm still gonna pass. Thanks for the Coke."
"They made it right? I ain't never heard a anyone puttin' lime cordial in Coke before, but--"
"It's fine. Thanks."
You wonder how he got in. Did the bouncer not notice the horns? For that matter, you wonder how he got served at the bar. But you have more important shit to deal with, and you turn away from him and put your cans back on and start cueing up the next set of tracks.
You see him in the strobe-light and the spinning disco-ball, several times. It's difficult not to spot those horns or the brightly-colored bands wrapped around them, and it's just as difficult not to notice that slime or no slime, Ampora seems to be doin' okay for himself with the ladies. And a couple of the men. At least...well, it looks like they're dancing with him. More than once you see him grinning and his companions subsequently fading away into the crowd; heh, maybe a mouthful of needle-teeth is as much of a turnoff for everybody else.
Maybe you could picture someone who was drunk enough to think it was a good idea taking Cronus up on his waggling eyebrows, but...your mind kind of blanks at that point, which is probably for the best.
Last call comes and you're shutting your equipment down; the crowd is thinning out. Ampora is nowhere to be seen. Presumably he went back to wherever the fuck he's staying--how long is he staying?--and nursed his broken heart. Good. Fine.
God damn it why can't you quit worrying for twenty minutes at a time, you are seriously turning into a fretful old den mother. Shit is embarrassing. Shit is unStriderian.
...You ask the bartender if she saw the troll leave. "I cut him off," she says, tabbing up her totals on the cash register. "I dunno what he did next, I just told him he wasn't gonna get any more vodka grape juices for the night." She makes a face: you're making one too. Grape juice. "He was being pretty obnoxious to the other customers."
Great. Way to be a Good Example of Trolldom, Ampora. Way to publicize the fucking cause. Sarah McLachlan, eat your heart out. You ask the bouncer, with your cases slung over your shoulder and your jacket zipped up against the night's chill. That's affirmative: Cronus Ampora had left the building maybe an hour ago.
You thank him, slap him the five he's waiting for, and head out. You'll maybe text Ampora in the morning, ask him how his grapey hangover's treating him and how's it feel setting his own goddamn cause back however fucking far, you are not going to do anything else but go straight the hell home and look in on your sleeping trolls before you hit the sack yourself and...
...and something down the alley outside Rise is groaning.
In your phone's flashlight he looks blue-grey instead of purple-grey, kneeling beside the wall with his arms braced and his scarf hanging raggedly down his back. The earfin things are as floppy and dejected as you've yet seen them. He winces away from the light.
Fuck everything in the universe to death, you think. "Ampora."
"Ampora, what the fuck. You gonna just spend the night in this alley?"
"'s nice alley."
"Yeah, yeah, as alleys go it is no doubt the fucking Ritz, but..." You sigh and shift your cases' straps more comfortably on your shoulder. "Where're you staying?"
He's obviously been very sick, and he's trembling. It's cold even by November standards. "Go 'way, Strider."
"Where are you staying?" you repeat. He groans, convulses in another dry heave. "Jesus Christ, how much did you have?"
"Dunno." Ampora wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. "Lots. Hot girl kept buyin' em for me. Wasn't gonna turn that down."
"Right, okay, for the third time, where are you staying?"
"Some shithole hot-sheet hotel. On'y place'd rent to a troll, can't...'member its name. Figured I wouldn't have to, bunch a 'vailable honeys in a place like this, I wasn't plannin' on goin' home alone if you get my drift..."
"You are the slimiest motherfucker I have ever encountered, you know that?" You sigh, push damp hair out of your face: it's drizzling.
"'m a seatroll," Ampora says. "Course 'm slimy."
For some reason that strikes you as fucking hilarious, and you can't help snickering. "That's gotta be racist somehow, I know it has to be. Okay, fuck, fine, I'm not dragging your ass round the red-light district all night trying to find whatever place you can't remember. If I let you sleep on my couch are you gonna be able to not hit on me or my bro or Sol or Karkat?"
"...can't guarantee nothin', chief, but I'll give it a try?"
"Also," you say, getting a hand under his arm and dragging him to his feet over his feeble protests, "quit it with the sport and chief shit, that is unbearable."
"Cool," he slurs, "slick," and loses his balance, nearly tugging you both over. You say a lot of very bad words and haul his arm over your shoulders, get your other arm round him--and he yelps, coughing. Under his shirt you can feel something weird and soft flutter. "...you mind?" he gasps. "I ain't the kind a troll goes for gillplay on the first fuckin' date."
You snatch your hand away. "Jesus. Ew."
"Yeah, yeah, fuck you too." He's leaning on you, but his breathing seems to be easing, and more helpfully he seems to be sobering up a bit. "What's the plan, tiger?"
"Plan is you shut your mouth and quit saying things that make me want to leave you here."
"Ten-four." He's got his eyes closed, head drooping, but when you start walking he picks up the rhythm and isn't as much of a dead weight on your shoulder as you'd feared.
When you get back to your building he whines until you give in and dump him on the steps so he can have a cigarette, and you head on up. Ugh, you smell of objectionable cologne and faintly of sick. Bro obviously notices both, and just lets an eyebrow climb his forehead.
"Do not ask," you say, unslinging your gear. "Do not even ask. Cronus fucking Ampora needs to borrow the couch. Or possibly just the floor, I dunno how kind and merciful I'm feeling."
He's about to say something, and then just pinches the bridge of his nose, goes to the linen closet, finds your big picnic blanket, and spreads it over the couch like a protective groundsheet.
"This goes on much further, little brother," he says, "we are going to have to apply for multifamily dwelling permits. He puke on you or just near you?"
"Near me. He showed up at the goddamn club, Bro. Gave me a hell of a shock and made a scene."
"Fuckdammit. Do me a favor and shower anyway?"
"Way ahead of you," you say, and go to fetch your latest troll acquaintance.
You wake up to the sound of Cronus Ampora being ill in your kitchen sink and realize, anew, that there is no God.
Then there are clattering noises. And a yelp.
You let yourself lie there for a moment longer with a hand over your face, cursing everything to the deepest fucking pits of forgotten subway stations, before hauling yourself out of bed and going to see what the fuck is going on. Thankfully Karkat is still asleep.
Sollux...isn't. Oh, hell. You stand in the kitchen doorway and stare. Ampora is sort of huddled by the sink, clutching a glass of water and looking very ill, and Sollux is...apparently guarding the fridge? His tiny twinned horns are jabbed forward in an obvious defensive stance, and what looks like most of your flatware is orbiting, limned in blue and scarlet, in the middle of the fucking kitchen. As you watch, a fork detaches itself from the circling mess and flings itself in Ampora's direction.
"Sollux," you say. He jerks round to look at you, losing concentration. The knives and forks fall in a flashing cascade of steel, bouncing and ringing, offering a melodious counterpoint to Ampora being violently sick again. Oh, for fuck's sake, what time is it even? You are not signed on for drama before at least ten a.m. "--Sollux, it's okay, relax, he's a..." What the fuck is he? "...a friend."
Flat, disbelieving stare. You don't blame him. "Okay, well, not really all that much of a friend, but he's not here to harm anybody. I brought him here cause he needed somewhere safe to sleep, is all."
Sollux continues to stare at you. You can't help a little smile. "Goddamn, though. Way to protect the household, dude, I am proud as fuck of you."
Something in his face relaxes, and he scuttles over to you and you kneel down just in time for him to throw himself into a fierce hug. "Good job, man. Good job. Everything's cool. Everything's okay." You stand up with him in your arms. "Sorry you had to wake up like that. Go on back to bed, I got this."
He shakes his head, still pressing his face against you. "Well, okay, I guess, but can you go check to see that Karkat's still asleep? Please?"
That seems to be an okay compromise. You set Sollux gently down and he hurries off, officious and busy, a troll with a purpose.
"...the fuck kinda household you runnin here, Strider?" Ampora croaks, and gags again, bending over the sink. You sigh and come over.
"Man, you coulda at least taken the strainer out before you got going." You turn the faucet on, rinsing the sink: he's mostly done, you think, but he better stay where he is for now. "Sorry. I didn't know he'd be all like PROTECT THE HOME PLACE. Having some random guy show up in his house and be all clattering round and puking is kind of understandably upsetting."
Ampora doesn't reply, just leaning on the edge of the sink. He coughs, coughs again.
"...Man, you are fucking wrecked. You remember anything about last night?"
"All of it," he says, and it's probably the least pretentious thing that's come out of his mouth so far. "Just...gimme a minute, Strider, okay, I'm, I just...I'll get out a your hair..."
You put a hand on his back. "Nope. Wanna talk to you properly. So does Bro, but eh. Also, you are in no shape to be wanderin' round the city, jesus fuck, you sound terrible."
"'m fine," he says, without much conviction. "Always do this in the mornings."
"What, puke yourself inside out?"
"No. Well, sometimes." He sips water carefully. The coiffure of last night is a complete wreck, hanging in his face in tangled black snarls; he's lost most of the bright rubber bands round his horn. The rings on his fingers remain, though, and in the harsh fluorescent light of your kitchen you can see the stones are probably real. "Just. I guess. Thanks for givin' me someplace to crash, despite the murderous baby psionic. Appreciate it."
"Yeah, I wasn't gonna leave you there, you're part of our board of trustees, which leads me to my next point." You lean back against the counter beside him, arms folded. "Dude. We cannot be having members of our organization get shitfaced and kicked out of clubs, okay? That is not helping the cause."
Ampora doesn't say anything, just leaning over the sink with his hair in his face.
"...Fuck. Go lie back down, if you're done hurling. You think you want anything to eat at all?"
"Well, okay. I'ma make eggs and toast, you want any of that, you're welcome to it. Just..."
He shakes his head, and takes his glass from the draining-board, and shuffles back through the kitchen to huddle on the couch.
You haven't ever seen Sol like this. He bristles every time he looks at Ampora, sparks dancing at the tips of his horns. Had Ampora...
...Had Ampora done anything to him? Your guts sink sickeningly. But you think based on what you've already seen this morning that Sollux is more than capable of defending himself against an apocalyptically hungover seatroll.
Ampora stays on the couch, refusing nourishment, while you and Bro feed the kids and get your own breakfast on. You give it as long as you can stand before you say "Hey, Cronus. Come on over here." You're expecting him to object, but he gets up and shuffles over to settle in a chair--and then grunts as Karkat climbs into his lap.
"Mister Purple?" he demands.
Ampora stares at you beseechingly. Karkat stands up in his lap--you know from experience he is damn heavy these days and little trollfeet on one's thighs are not the most comfortable of sensations--and pats anxiously at his face. "Mister Purple sick?"
"...I'm okay, kid," he says, not sounding all that convinced. "I'm fine."
"You have juice," Karkat commands him. "Juice an' pink medicine."
You and Bro exchange a glance, and neither of you steps in to take pity just yet. Karkat has his hands on Ampora's chest, peering at him. "Pink medicine for barfing."
Neither of you can completely stifle a snicker. "He's right, you know," says Bro. "Kid knows his pharmaceuticals."
Ampora stares at you with big violet eyes over Karkat's head, and you sigh and get up, chuckling. "We'll take care of Mister Purple, I promise. Here, wanna help me load the dishwasher, Karkles? Can't do this on my own you know."
Karkat beams, and you scoop him off Ampora's lap and bear him over to the dishwasher, tickling him on the way, so that he wriggles and squirms and shrieks and totally forgets about your houseguest.
You do, in fact, bring Cronus Ampora a dose of pink medicine. He sits huddled at the kitchen table, eyes down, looking both pathetic and truculent, and Sollux glares at him from his self-appointed position by the fridge.
"You want to tell me why you decided, after actually meeting with us and apparently checking our bona fides to your cause, to go sabotage the shit out of said cause by getting hammered and harassing patrons at my club?"
"...no," he says.
"Yeah, figured. Tell us anyway."
The doorbell rings. You and Bro both look over, and Ampora moves a bit; bright blue-scarlet light flickers in the corner of your vision.
A fork is hanging in the air about ten inches from Sollux, obviously tossed and just as obviously caught in psionics.
You and Bro stare at one another and then back at Ampora, both of you moving to block his shot at Sol, who is glaring bicolored daggers. "What the fuck?"
"He started it," Ampora says, huddling in on himself. "Ain't my fault. Threw the goddamn cutlery drawer at me."
"Wow, you're picking fights with a little kid now? Seriously? Jesus Christ."
No answer. He huddles tighter; you go to see who's at the door. Behind you you can hear Bro stepping forward to loom over Ampora, saying something to the effect of you throw shit at any of us again and your ass is on the street, you feel me?
It's...huh. It's Jade. "'Sup?"
She looks tired. "Hi, Dave. Sorry to be like the supreme bearer of bad news but...uh, the place Mister Ampora was supposed to stay didn't get his second night's rent and they say he's not welcome there anymore. You got any idea whe...."
She's looking past you at the huddled form of the seatroll in his chair, Bro standing over him. "Uh. Guess you didn't need me to tell you."
"He showed up at Rise last night, got shitfaced, made a scene, got kicked out," you say, pushing back your hair. "When I left I found him puking in an alley in the freezing rain, story of my fucking life. He doesn't look so hot to me, Harls, we might need to haul him downtown for Dr. Z to poke at."
"Yeah, Dr. Z is gonna love that." She too sighs. "Okay. I can hang around for like twenty minutes if you want me to give him a ride to the clinic."
"You are a princess," you inform her. "Come have coffee at least. I think we got some maple candy left, too." You know from Bro that she's got a sweet tooth to rival your own, and yeah, she lights up like a lamp. You smile and duck aside, bowing to let her in.
She gets a ballistic Karkat to the knees, and when she's scooped him up into her arms Sollux skitters over and bites his lip until she ducks down to grab him too, cuddling both of them. Her wild black hair cascades over all three of them, and there is something stupidly, simply beautiful about how happy they are to see one another. You don't say anything, just retreating to the kitchen, where Bro has stopped mid-harangue and Ampora is staring at the trio with what looks like naked longing on his face.
"Your hotel apparently has a no-show policy," you inform him. "Hope you didn't pay too much for that room, cause it's not yours anymore. I guess you can stay here if you promise to quit fucking throwing shit at us, I mean, were you raised in a troll barn or something?"
He ducks his head and black greasy hair falls over his face in a blank curtain. "...thanks," he says, or you think he says, so quietly it's damn hard to tell.
"Yeah, well. I got a lot of other shit I want to ask you but I guess it can wait till you're feeling less godawful. Jade wants to take you in to see Dr. Z."
He flips his hair back in a jagged ungraceful motion and his purple eyes are huge, beseeching. "No, seriously, no, okay, no, don't...I'm fine, I don't need no doctorin', I'm, please, don't..."
"Bullshit you don't." Bro folds his arms. "You're a mess. You go see Doctor Z and you try not to antagonize the fuck out of him, and we'll go from there. Okay? You want to be part of this organization, them's the rules."
It doesn't seem to dawn on either Bro or Ampora that a human dictating to a troll how that troll should behave in a troll-rescue-society context is somewhat problematic. Ampora just slumps a bit further in the chair. "I'll take that as a yes," Bro says, and for a moment rests a hand lightly on his shoulder.
Jade is in the rocker with both trolls on her lap and Sollux hissing a litany of wrongs at her while Karkat anxiously plays with her hair. "--Okay!" you say. "Who wants to go walk down to the park?"
She looks over the pair of dark heads at you. "Dave, you should come too."
"I can't, man, Bro's gotta go to work and I have to watch the kids, fuck if they need yet another trip downtown to sit around in a waiting room--"
"I already called Jake. He's on his way over."
"Ake!" Karkat says and claps his little hands. "Ake says I a pirate."
"We're both pirates," Sollux corrects him. "Buccaneers. Corsairs. Jake knows all the words."
"He sure does," says Jade, hugging both of them. "He's been looking it all up in books so he knows he's telling you guys the right stuff, you know that? You're good for my bro. Good influences."
Karkat swells with pride. Even Sollux sort of puffs out his narrow pigeon chest. He seems to have almost forgotten the horrible purple interloper for the moment, thank fuck. "Ake says he building a pirate ship."
"Yup!" Jade ruffles his hair. "He's getting all the bits together. You guys should have your very own pirate ship in like a couple weeks. Can you do me a big favor though?"
Both of them look up at her, rapt.
"Can you keep an eye on my bro? Make sure he doesn't start daydreaming? He's all distracted just recently, you guys need to keep him on track."
Sollux--oh God--snaps off what looks like a perfect damn salute, and Karkat tries but sort of pokes himself in the forehead. She laughs and gives them both a last squeeze. "G'wan, he'll be here soon. You should be ready."
They scramble down off her lap and scuttle into Sol's room, where their toys live. You don't look at Bro, but you can sort of tell he's blushing nonetheless. "Masterfully played, Harls. You sure you need me to come with?"
In the chair Ampora hiccup-coughs, and you look over: wow, you have rarely seen a more miserable object. You just hope he doesn't puke in Jade's CR-V.
At least he's subdued enough not to try to make passes at anybody, or even say anything particularly unbearable to Zahhak, although he looks scared to death. The vet listens to his back and chest, feels under the angles of his jaw, looks down his throat, makes him lie down and palpates his abdomen. He makes Ampora breathe into this gadget with a little floaty ball thing he's supposed to keep floating as long as he can. The waves of miserable frightened humiliation coming off the troll are...yeah, okay, they're enough to make you feel slightly sick yourself.
"How long?" Zahhak inquires, snapping off his gloves.
"How long have you been drinking and smoking yourself stupid?"
"'s not like that," Ampora starts, but Zahhak leans on one hand on the edge of the table and it creaks. "--okay sure I should cut back."
Zahhak says nothing.
"...guess maybe like seven, eight months ago." He wraps his arms round himself. With his shirt off, the livid purple gashes of his gills look like mortal wounds.
"What prompted it?"
"Oh just your garden-variety fuckin existential ennui bullshit," Ampora says, his voice black with poison all of a sudden. "The fuck you want to know for?"
"Because," says Zahhak, more gently, "you are one of the people who can help guide this nascent organization to be of greatest use, and I need to have you well and strong to do that."
Ampora coughs, surprised, and coughs again, and you step over to put a hand on his back. He's weirdly slick although his skin is dry. "...you're not gonna, like, judge me an' shit?"
"No." Zahhak folds his arms, stares him down.
"What if my reasons for doin' shit are kinda lousy?"
"Then they're lousy; I need to know, nonetheless."
"Hey," you say. "Would it be okay if we just like talked, me and Cronus. I mean. Not to be like you're not talkable to or anything just--"
"I understand," Zahhak says. "I'll give you twenty minutes. After that I need to take a chest film and run some bloodwork and you are free to go about your business."
"Good deal." You nod firmly, and he gives you a flicker of a smile before striding round the table and closing the door behind him.
You pull over the bare-bones metal chair from the corner of the exam room, turn it round, sit on it with your arms folded on the back. Ampora is still not looking at anything except presumably the floor, but some of the tension in his back fades the moment Zahhak shuts the door behind him.
He really needs a shower. In the pitiless fluorescent light his hair is greasy as hell, and you can smell him: a mixture of the kind of cologne that's advertised to teenage boys as irresistible to women, cigarette smoke, a faint sour hint of sickness, and a weird kind of stale fishy sweat. "Put your shirt on, dude, it's freezing in here." And his gills are frankly kind of giving you the wig, seeing them all right out in the open like that. They look like wounds.
"You know about the lab testing?" he asks, apropos of nothing, but he does wriggle back into his shirt. It, too, could do with a wash.
"Trolls. Lab trolls."
You are really trying not to understand the concept, but it isn't working. Ampora glances at you under the hair, his earfins drooping. "Lot a companies use us for experiments. Somethin about bein a effective model for a bunch a conditions, I dunno. I got out early."
"You said you were bought and set free."
"Yeah. Bought twice. Mutie seatrolls ain't real saleable for anythin other than testin, breeder couldn't a made much on that deal." He pushes back his hair. "See the purple?"
You squint at him, take off your shades, lean closer. With it pulled straight back you can just see a faint line of the same purple as his eyes, along the very front of his hairline. "Gotta touch up my roots. That right there knocks my value down to shit in terms a troll breedstock. My cousin Eridan's the same way only he got lucky, some lady bought him off the breeder despite the fucked-up genes. I went to the labs as a wriggler. Fun times, chief. Fun times."
"They used you for testing?"
"Way to put your finger on the nub a my gist, Strider. Full fuckin marks." Ampora lets go of his hair and it flops forward over his face again. "Got out when I was, I dunno, nine or ten. By then a bunch a forward-thinkin humes an' freed trolls were goin round buyin up the fucked-up lab trolls an' bein all like 'be free.' Thing is though, when you been used to figure out what happens to a seatroll's gills when you expose 'em to cigarette smoke, you turn out to be pretty permanently screwed."
You are starting to feel like an asshole. "You told Zahhak it was seven or eight months ago that you started with the booze and shit."
"More like a year. Prior to that I was a good little troll, didn't fuck around with no hard stuff, just snuck a smoke now an' then cause with all the goodwill in the fuckin world ain't nothin can really kill that one addiction. When I first got out they had me on the patch but it did bad shit to my skin." He turns his wrist, shows you a line of faintly darker purple-grey blotches. "Feelin bad yet?"
"Yeah," you say, truthfully. "What happened a year ago?"
"You don't follow the news real close, I'm guessin." He sounds tired to all hell. "Name a Scratch ring any bells?"
You try to think. Hadn't there been something about some kind of trial? He's looking at you, obviously watching you fail to remember, and droops a little further.
"Fightin ring. One a the trolls was Eridan's kismesis. Whole thing was a giant clusterfuck." Ampora's cough shakes him, and you can see the ripple under his shirt as his gills flutter. "Kinda put me in the mood for some good ol' fashioned self-destructive bullshit, if you catch my drift."
"What's with the turbo-sleaze bit?" you inquire, resolving to look up kismesis at your earliest convenience. "I get the self-destructive bullshit part, sure, but you are seriously delusional if you think coming on to anything with a pulse is a strategy headed for success. How old even are you?"
"I'm legal," he says, sounding affronted. You stare at him, and he looks at you under the hair, and you can't help snickering--and then full-out laughing. The scowl deepens. "What the fuck?"
"Nothing," you manage, giggling, and put your shades back on. "Jesus Christ. You're a complete asshat and you type like a tool and you wear Axe unironically but at least you aren't jailbait, Ampora. Thank God for that."
"Why, you interested?"
"Do the eyebrow thing again." You're still laughing. He stares, obviously trying to work out whether or not to be mortally offended, and then he does the eyebrow thing again--and you notice, glory be, that his earfins are no longer pointing miserably at the floor.
Dr. Z doesn't much like what he sees on the X-ray, you can tell, but when he takes you aside he doesn't tell you anything you don't already know. You give him a précis of Ampora's history.
"I thought as much," he rumbles. "There's damage here that's a lot older than a few months. The bloodwork will tell us what else has been done to him. I'm willing to bet we'll see decreased immune resistance as well as elevated liver enzymes. He has to stop, Dave."
"Yeah, I know. He knows, too." And you understand why being here, being examined, pushes a lot of Ampora's fear buttons. "Something happened with a trial that got him started on this shit. A troll fighting ring? I don't remember much about it."
"Not the Scratch trial?" Dr. Z rubs at his face. "Hell. I read a little about it in the papers, but that was about when that parvo outbreak popped up and I had my hands full. I'll look it up. In the meantime, he'd better...stay with you, I suppose, if you can find somewhere to put him, unless Jade volunteers her couch. I don't think he'll get along with that vast hound of hers."
"He doesn't get along with Sollux, either." You tell him about the morning's excitement; one of Dr. Z's eyebrows, black as an inkstroke, climbs his forehead.
"Interesting. Very interesting. I suppose Sollux is at the age when this sort of thing begins to manifest." He's almost talking to himself.
"What sort of thing?"
"It might be nothing. I don't want Ampora traveling for a few days, though, so if you and Dirk can take him..."
What the hell. "I guess. He and Sol can glare at one another and Karkat can use him as a jungle gym. He calls him Mister Purple, it's adorable."
Zahhak snorts. "I don't doubt it. All right, I'll write him a scrip for that cough, and you had better lock up whatever spirituous liquors you keep in the house--and don't let him go out clubbing unsupervised. Or at all, preferably."
"No kidding. I have never seen anyone hit on that many people in that short a time, ever, it was some seriously impressive fail. He hasn't explained why, either."
"Perhaps he will, if you can get him to trust you. My guess is that he's searching for validation of his own agency."
"He wants to be a real live boy?" you ask. Zahhak looks bleak.
"Something along those lines. A childhood spent as a laboratory animal can't have given him much by way of self-confidence or identity. He's probably trying to prove a number of things to himself. Be patient, Dave."
"Hey, that's my middle name. Dave 'Patient' Strider. Talking of which I better go rescue Ms. Peixes from him." You shrug into your jacket. "Call us when you get the test results on the bloodwork?"
"Of course." That had been weird as fuck, watching the vacutainer tubes fill up with blood the color of grape juice. How the hell did that even work? You think the reason your blood is red is cause of the way it transfers oxygen around or something, how does purple blood make sense?
You push away the question--and the memory of Ampora's face while Dr. Z drew his blood, pale under the grey, eyes huge and shocky. You can see him in a lab, pretty clearly. Pretty easily.
Not for the first time you have a strong desire to punch the world real hard in the face.
You get a taxi back; Jade has to work. Jake is giving Karkat horseyback rides round the living room while Sollux, with a dishtowel tied round his neck as a cape, directs them. He's got one of your ancient practice swords, and you try to remember where you'd stashed it and whether he's been able to locate any more sharp things to damage himself with, but a closer look at the blade suggests either Bro or Jake has deliberately taken the edge down to rounded smoothness. You should've thought of that.
The three of them freeze when you let yourself and Ampora in. Beside you, he stiffens, straightening up from his slouch. Sol glares at him and waves the sword in a meaningful sort of way.
"Uh," you say. "We interrupting anything?"
"I'm being a whale," Jake Harley informs you. This does not clear matters up.
"I'm the dread pirate Captor and I can thummon up whaleth to do my bidding," Sollux adds, and Karkat beams at the pair of you. Ampora goes on staring. "Karkat'th my firtht mate on the thip."
"I a pirate!" Karkat nudges his heels into Jake's ribs.
"...I need coffee," you say as Jake resumes circling the room and making what you assume are whale noises. Sollux watches you cross to the kitchen with Ampora in your wake, his mismatched eyes narrowed, and only after Ampora has dropped into a chair does he turn his back and continue directing whale traffic.
"They always like that?" Ampora asks.
"Annoyin as fuck."
"Look who's talking, Mister Purple." You fill the coffeemaker, switch it on. "I found Karkles in a box in the rain and Sol had been beaten and left on the side of the road, I think them being happy and healthy and secure enough to play pirates with Jake Harley is a good deal. You don't like kids?"
He coughs. "No. Baby trolls are lame."
"You were one once."
"Yeah, I kinda try to forget that phase a my life, sport. Wasn't all that groovy."
You turn to face him, leaning against the counter. "Yeah, okay. Sorry. Not cool."
Ampora blinks at you. His earfins flutter once. You think maybe he doesn't get a lot of people apologizing to him, and change the subject.
"Coffee first and then you go shower, man, and try to think of something constructive to do with your day. Like maybe telling me more about these other troll communities on the west coast. How that shit is structured. If there's anyone in charge we should get in touch with."
"You're serious about this, ain't you," he says, not really a question. "Why?"
"I just said. I found Karkat in a box. It said Unwanted Free Ugly Troll on the side in magic marker. The fuck was I supposed to do?"
"Walk on by," says Ampora. "People do."
"Yeah, well, people suck." The coffee's finished dripping; you get out mugs. "You want cream and sugar?"
"Yeah, lots." You'd have pegged him as the type to boast about preferring his coffee black, possibly with a really shitty like-I-like-my-women line, but you are beginning to twig that Cronus Ampora doesn't always live up to the image of himself he attempts to project. When you set a mug down in front of him he mutters a belated thank-you.
"How did you get here, anyway?" You settle at the table across from him. "You ride the bus or what?"
"Hitched," he says, looking over the mug at you. You just stare, and after a moment he drops his gaze. "Okay, okay. Caught a ride with friends."
"You have friends?"
"Fuck you, Strider." He coughs, clears his throat, coughs again; puts down the mug before he can spill, muffling the fit in his elbow, flushed purple. You get up and come around the table to thump him on the back.
"Breathe, dude, c'mon. You sound like shit."
"'s okay," he manages between coughs, takes a gulp of coffee, and subsides, panting. "Like I was sayin, fuck you."
"Yeah, yeah. Want some of Dr. Z's stuff?"
He nods. You go over to the counter where the bottle in its white paper pharmacy bag is lurking, and realize you have an audience: Sollux, divested of his teatowel cape but still hanging on to the practice sword, is standing in the doorway staring at Ampora with blatant dislike. You can't really blame him. "Hey, Sol. What's up?"
"Why'th he thtill here?"
You have to sigh. Ampora twists round in the chair and scowls at him. "He needs somewhere to stay for a couple of days, is all. Dr. Z doesn't want him traveling right now."
"Ith he thick?"
"I'm right fuckin here, kid," Ampora points out. "And no, I ain't sick, your vast lump a vet'rinary officiousness just likes givin orders." The accent seems to thicken when he's talking to Sol: givvin.
"Doctor Zahhak ith real thmart. Ithn't he, Dave?"
"Head full of brains, you got that right." You feel a little bit as if you're watching a tennis match.
"And Mithter Purple ithn't."
"Name's Cronus, mushmouth, not Mister Purple. Y'might wanna let your nubby-horned pal know that, while you're at it."
"Karkat'th not nubby. He'th jutht little." Sollux's horns are starting to spark. "And you're a jerk. Who thmellth bad."
You are trying not to laugh. Ampora scowls more fiercely than ever. "Watch your mouth or it might fuckin grow on you," he says.
"I wanna thee you try," and oh, God, Sol's displaying, he's got the sparks going real good now and he's lowered his head in a fighting stance. It is both the most adorable thing you've seen today and also pretty badass.
However, it's clear that they're about to get into cutlery-throwing mode and you've had enough of that for one day, so you step between them, holding up your hands in a T. "Okay, okay, guys, enough, let's quit with the rumble. Sol, don't let him get to you. Cronus, what we said about throwing forks goes for bullshit name-calling as well as threatening bodily harm."
Jake's come over with Karkat in his arms, looking interested and slightly worried at the same time. You look up at him. "We're cool. These guys were all hate-at-first-sight for some reason."
"He does smell bad," Karkat pipes up, and Jake actually blushes in proxy embarrassment: you can sort of see why Bro goes tongue-tied when he's around.
"Oh, that is it," Ampora groans and flops forward with his face buried in his folded arms. "Fuckin shoot me now an get it over with, Strider, I ain't up for this bullshit."
"It's okay!" Karkat squirms to get down, and Jake sets him carefully on his feet; he scuttles over to Ampora and puts both hands on one of his knees, looking earnestly up at him. "Don't be scared. Dave an Bo say I not go down drains with bathwater."
You and Jake look at one another and then back to the tableau before you. Cronus stays very still for a moment, and you're not sure if he's going to explode, but then--slowly--he sits up and stares at the little troll by his knee.
"Yeah?" he says, at last.
"I pomise." Karkat nods firmly. "You have bath and medicine. Be all better." There's something of Bro in the confident command, and you have to swallow hard around a totally inexplicable lump in your throat.
"Well, shit," Ampora says, and hauls himself to his feet, coughing. "If you say so, I guess it's safe."
Karkat nodnodnods and tugs him by the hand. "I show you. You can have bubbles!"
The look on Sollux's face is close to murder--but there's something else there, as well, a kind of excited intensity you haven't seen in him before. It's as if he almost enjoys hating Ampora. Something Dr. Z had said kicks you in the back of the brain and you try to remember it: at the age when this sort of thing starts to manifest. What sort of thing?
"Strider," says Jake, still staring after Ampora as Karkat leads him down the hallway, "I think if I see any more adorable things this morning I'm gonna have a coronary."
"It gets to you, doesn't it?" you agree. "Go on, go home, man, you are reprieved. Thanks again for coming over to watch them."
"Anytime, my friend."
You clear up the coffee mugs and wonder what the fuck you are doing with your life, and not for the first time find yourself actually enjoying the uncertainty.
"YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME."
Probably you should have used your indoor voice, since it's like nine p.m. and...yep, little pattering feet in the hallway say you've woken the kids. Fuck. You shut the computer and bonk your forehead on the kitchen table gently, trying to fit this new and absurd knowledge into your brain. Zahhak could have fucking told you, you think. Framed in that voice in that clinical setting it might even have seemed less bizarre.
"Yo, what up, kid?" Bro pokes his head round the doorframe, balancing Karkat on one nonexistent hip. Sol peeks past him.
"Nothing." You rub at your face, put your shades back on. "The internet's being hilarious is all. Sorry I woke you guys," you add, to the trolls. "Everything's cool."
Bro puts Karkles down: he toddles over to you and climbs into your lap. You rub your cheek against the dark softness of his hair, inhale the warm scent of baby shampoo. Things were a lot less complicated this time last week.
"'s all the commotion about, chief?" Cronus is leaning in the doorway with his arms folded, wearing a pair of your sweatpants and a shirt that advertises Hellmann's Mayonnaise, which you vaguely remember picking up ironically at some thrift store or other. You are not in the mood for him, and you are specially not in the mood to notice that his hair, when clean, flops hilariously over his face and makes him look considerably less sleazoid. Sollux glowers at him.
"Nothing," you say again, and give Karkat's horn a rub: he purrs sleepily. "C'mon, little dude, back to your pile."
"I have a story?" he asks.
"I guess. If it's a short one." You've had to hide The Little Engine That Could under the couch because if you have to read that story again in the next six months or so you will pop a cerebral artery and die messily all over the floor. So far Karkat hasn't found it. "How about the Very Hungry Caterpillar?"
"Wriggler," Karkat says into your shirt, and you stand up, cuddling him.
"Right, right. The Very Hungry Wriggler. Comin' right up." Bro and Sollux step aside to let you carry Karkles back to your room and his pile. He's mostly asleep; you barely get through the first four pages of the book before he's emitting tiny little snores.
You stay where you are for a little longer, watching him sleep. He's got his wrist in his mouth, kind of chewing on it, the troll version of thumb-sucking--you think you should probably try to discourage that--and he looks blithely unconcerned by anything at all, specially not weird-as-fuck troll romantic concepts.
You can sort of remember your first crush, on a teacher, when you were little. She'd had long black hair and brown eyes and rich coppery skin, but mostly you were just in love with the way she smiled. You can't even remember her name, just the warm sweetness you'd felt in your chest whenever that smile was directed at you.
That's pretty standard kiddie crush stuff, you think. You'd still been years away from actually wanting to do anything. Sol, though...
It's called kismesissitude. Mashup of kismet and nemesis. A troll's kismesis is someone they really enjoy hating, as far as you can make out; colloquially it's referred to as black romance. That weird excitement you'd seen in Sollux's eyes when he was glaring daggers at Ampora, that was what Dr. Z had been talking about: apparently he was at the age when trolls started getting their first crushes, and instead of just the ordinary puppy-love bullshit you'd experienced, they had four types to worry about.
You'd shut the computer before you got a clear look at the other ones, because what the fuck, your adopted kid has a blackcrush on the complete and utter sleazeball you're stuck with housing for the next couple of days, how are you even supposed to deal with that?
"How am I even supposed to deal with this?" you inquire of Bro, a little later, in the kitchen; Sol has been relocated to his pile with his own books and told the excitement was over for the evening. Bro's reading the same website you looked at, and you can tell by the little lines in the middle of his forehead that behind the shades he is doing the Strider equivalent of frowning pretty fucking hard.
"Step one is not tell him about it," he says. "He won't be here that long and once he's outta our hair Sol'll forget all about this shit."
"You think?" You're clutching a mug of coffee. "I don't even, man, it's, how the fuck is that supposed to work?"
"I dunno, I guess I can sorta see it. Listen, though, there's all this other shit--"
"My brain hurts already, dude, gimme a break."
"No, listen, it's weird but it's kinda cool all the same. There's this other thing called moirallegiance." He pronounces it as if the first bit's French: mwahrallegiance. "Pale romance. Like, when you care about someone a bunch but you don't wanna fuck 'em."
That's your Bro, eloquence personified. "They have a word for that?"
"Yep. And an even weirder one called...uh...auspistice? Auspisticism?" You look over his shoulder. It's another mashup, auspicious and armistice: you have to wonder who came up with this shit. Some white-coated dweeb watching trolls interact in a lab, putting labels on what they saw? "That's when you, uh, get your rocks off matchmakin' other people, I think."
"How the hell do they have any time to do shit other than fret about relationships?"
"Got me, kid. But the best thing to do right now, I figure, is pretend it ain't happenin' and it'll go away."
"What'll go away?" Cronus is back. Jesus, he moves like a cat when he wants to. Bro shuts the computer before he can get a clear look at the screen.
"Stuff at work," he says easily. "How're you feeling?"
"Eh." Cronus seesaws a hand in the air. "Okay."
You've heard him coughing on and off; he sounds hoarse. "Want anything? Tea?"
"Pint a gin?" he asks, looking hopeful.
"All out of gin, sorry, man." Bro gets up. "I can fix you a hot toddy if you want."
"What's one a them?"
"It's good," you say. "Hot lemon and honey and stuff. Tastes better than that evil green death medicine, anyway."
The expression on his face is one of almost comic relief. Bro chuckles, goes to put the kettle on. Without his hair glop or his leather jacket Cronus looks younger and considerably less objectionable. You find yourself wondering how he got that double Harry Potter scar on the side of his forehead, and then think again of him as a little kid locked up in some horrible lab with smoke running through his gills.
"What is it?" he says, looking curiously at you, and you realize some of this must've been showing on your face. You need to watch that. It's unStriderly.
"Nothing, dude. I was miles away." Your poker face settles back into place: you can feel it. For a moment you think he's going to pursue the point, but he just flops into a chair and rubs at his face and looks, briefly, very human indeed.
Bro stirs and mixes and measures, and hands Cronus a steaming mug. "Drink up and go back to sleep, you'll feel better in the morning." He's told you that when you were sick, always with exactly that same confidence: you couldn't help believing it. Neither can Cronus, from the hopeful look on his face. He doesn't argue, either, which you think is either a good sign or evidence that he really is feeling pretty rough; either way, he isn't asking any more questions about what you'd been discussing, which is all to the good.
You watch him slope off back to the couch, mug in hand, and lean against the doorway while he crawls back under his blankets. For a moment he looks back at you--is he glowing, what the fuck, those look like faintly luminous purple spots high on his cheekbones--and then he just curls up facing the back of the couch.
"Yo," says Bro, "earth to Strider, come in Strider."
"Go ahead, Houston, you have Strider." You turn away from the dim living room. "What, dude?"
"You should get some sleep too, kid, you're startin' to look kinda worn around the edges. Ain't surprising, what with all this runnin' around after Mister Purple and the kids."
You realize he's right, you are tired, you just haven't been paying enough attention to anything but the others to notice it. "Mmmh. Yeah, I guess. Wake me up if he does anything dumb enough to be amusing, okay?"
"You got it. G'wan, kid. Scram."
In the morning Cronus is feverish and irritable--more irritable than usual--and Sollux needles him to the point where you have to threaten time-outs. He looks at you with wide wounded eyes and you wonder if you're actually going to make it through the day without going batshit insane. "What's gotten into you?" you ask him, as if you didn't know.
"He'th jutht a big jerk ith all." Sollux extends an impressive bifurcated tongue in Cronus's direction. "At leatht he thmellth better now."
"Belt up, kid," Cronus rasps. "I ain't feelin up to dealin with your lip."
"Good. I hope you feel terrible. I hope you hafta barf up your grothth toenailth."
"Sollux," you say.
"What? They are grothth. He doethn't cut them. I thaw."
"I do too cut them. The fuck you doin lookin at my toes anyhow?"
"You thtuck them in my fathe thith morning when I came into the living room."
"Like hell. You were all pokin me an' bein like WAKE UP MITHTER PURPLE, which by the way is not my fuckin name, get that through your goddamn too-many-horns-havin skull, freak."
"I'm not a freak!"
"Are too." Cronus starts to say something else, but begins to cough instead. Sol makes a face at him.
"Sollux." You put your coffee mug down and reach behind you for the box of tissues, handing it to Cronus, who grabs a handful and goes on hacking. You raise your voice over the noise. "That's enough, okay? He's not my favorite person in the world but he's our guest for a couple days and I need you to not be super obnoxious."
Bro chimes in. "Ease off, little dude. Be at peace."
"I don't wanna be at peathe, I want him to go away!"
It's probably a bad thing that Cronus picks this moment to push away from the table and hurry out of the room, still coughing, tissues clutched to his mouth. A moment later you hear water running in the bathroom. "I better go after him."
Bro nods. "Sol, you're done. Go read in your room."
"I'm thtill eating--"
He slithers out of his chair and stomps out of the kitchen, horns sparking. You and Bro look at one another with identical what-the-fuck-do-I-do-now expressions, and you try not to look at how unhappily Karkat is pushing cheerios around his plate.
Cronus is leaning over the bathroom sink, panting. You put a hand on his shoulder. "You okay, man?"
He nods, without looking up, and finishes the glass of water he's holding, still breathing hard. "Yeah. It's just. Every time I get a cold. Goes right to my chest. Annoyin as hell." Apparently he's decided to abandon the I'm-not-sick bit, which you mentally applaud: that was getting old.
"You want me to call Dr. Z?"
"No, God no, fuck, I'm okay, don't...don't." He droops under your hand, finally getting his breath back. "Did you ever get my shit from the hotel?"
"I think Bro called them and got them to agree to deliver it. Should be here today or tomorrow." He nods. "Why?"
He's still flushed from coughing, but he goes darker purple and mutters something. "Huh?"
"My inhaler." The earfins are pointing at the floor: you can sympathize, you used to have one when you were a kid and wow, it so did not fit with your image any more than it does with his.
"We'll get it for you. You want to lie down?"
Something weird flashes in his eyes, in the mirror: an expression you totally can't read, the closest thing you can map it to is a kind of desperate yearning. Then it's gone, and he's--yeah, okay, he's doing the eyebrow thing and the alligator grin. It doesn't work so well with the underlying tired look. "Depends. You gonna keep me company?"
"Wow, dude, all kinds of inappropriate," you tell him, and roll your eyes. "C'mon, gross green medicine is calling your name."
"Do I have to?" He sounds like the kids.
"Yup. It is inevitable, yo. It is your destiny."
"You make a really shitty emperor, Strider. I just want you to know that."
Cronus spends the rest of the day dozing on the couch covered in blankets, which means nobody gets to watch TV, which means the kids are bored as hell and consequently Sollux's mission to win Most Aggravating Troll of the Year is going ahead with breakneck speed. He manages to make Karkat cry at one point, which you can tell he didn't mean to do by the way he drops the attitude and immediately wraps around him in a bony hug. There's your Sol, you think; that's the little guy you took to the aquarium, the troll who'd been so happy to get his bee back. You want Ampora gone as much as Sol does, if it means you get to go back to normal.
The problem, of course, is that he doesn't really have anywhere else to go at the moment. Maybe it'd be better if you sent him over to Jade's place, but you think he and Bec would get along about as well as he's getting along with Sollux, and at least Sol can be sort-of reasoned with. You look over at the bundled-up form on the couch, see again the cold alley where you'd found him outside Rise, and then the image of him as a grub in some white sterile laboratory takes over and you have to think about something else.
You're trying to think of something else to think about, back in your room with your computers on and absolutely nothing by way of inspiration, when Karkat tugs at your jeans and you look down to find him beside your chair. "Sup, little dude?"
He climbs into your lap. "Sollux angry."
"Yeah, I know. He really doesn't like Cronus."
"Okay, Mister Purple." He's never gonna live that one down. "Sol's gonna have to put up with it a little while longer, though."
"Because right now we don't have anywhere else to put Mister Purple, and Doctor Z doesn't want him traveling for a couple more days, till he's over his cold." You give one of his horns a rub with your thumb-tip. This seems to satisfy Karkat for a while, and you cuddle him, absurdly reassured by the solidity of the warm little body in your arms. Everything's felt off, these past couple of days, as if the floor is tilting and everything including you is beginning to slide: hugging Karkat seems to make that feeling go away. You have work to do on the website and research to do on fundraising and lobbying, but you think you can steal a little time just to be with him and listen to his purr.
In fact you end up dozing off yourself, for almost half an hour, and it's only because of a clatter from the living room that you wake up. A clatter, followed by raspy swearing, and then the crackle of psionics. Karkat scrambles off your lap and you follow to find Sollux flaring blue and scarlet, blocking the doorway to the kitchen. "What the hell--"
"--is your problem, anyway, kid?" Cronus is demanding. "I ain't done shit to you, I just wanna get a drink a water, what's with the fuckin attitude, it's like you're..."
You watch his face go a very horrible unhealthy color. He grabs for the doorframe to steady himself. "Oh Jesus Christ this shit ain't happenin, Strider, tell me this ain't happenin?" He stares at Sollux with wide horrified eyes. "You're just a kid, you're what, like eight, nine, no way are you old enough to be black for anybody."
"He's got a crush," you say. "The more I learn about trolls' concept of romance the less goddamn sense it makes, Ampora. Dr. Z said something about how he was at the age when this kind of thing started showing up."
"I don't have a cruth!" Sollux flares again. Wow are those sparks ever bright. "What kind of thing? What are you talking about?"
Cronus backs away from him. The lightshow fades as he gets farther away. You look from him to Sol and back again, just as Karkat comes down the hall with Bro in tow. "What now?" Bro demands.
"You're the authority figure here," you say, feeling that frictionless sliding again. "You get to have the troll version of the birds and the bees talk with Sollux. Only you gotta have it four fucking times, man, congratulations."
Cronus sits down abruptly on the edge of the couch and covers his face with his hands. "Great," he moans. "I finally get someone interested in a fuckin quadrant and it's a goddamn kid, it just fuckin figures."
"You know what," Bro says, "what this situation needs right now?"
"Napalm?" you ask.
"A woman's touch. Go call up the clinic, Dave. This is where we yell for Ms. Peixes' help."
"She knows all about this quadrant shit--I've been texting Jade for help, she says to ask Feferi. And frankly she is a much better explainer than you or me or Mister Purple here. Better-lookin' too."
"I don't have a cruth, I wanna thtab him with a fork," Sollux insists. "A lot of timeth. A big tharp fork. How ith that cruthing?"
"Beats the hell out of me, kid, but this shit has got to stop." Bro points at you. "Go. Call."
You go and you call, and as you're waiting for the clinic to pick up you have a weirdly clear memory of Ampora's eyes in the mirror, that odd wanting expression that had vanished under his godawful shit-eating grin.
You are in way over your head here. And you know it.
Warning: This chapter includes references to the events of Loophole. You do not need to have read that fic to read this one, but this chapter does contain spoilers for Loophole's Chapter 12.
Kudos to Roachpatrol for inspiration.
You think the macking is, like, an autonomic reaction to the presence of other people. Feferi Peixes hasn't been in your damn apartment for five minutes before Ampora is eeling around her with that piranha grin, cracking Juicy Fruit, and insinuating things that would probably cause Zahhak to raise his voice. She handles it like a champ, though, blithely not recognizing anything he says as offensive or drenched in innuendo, and anyway a fit of coughing sidelines him two or three terrible goddamn pickup lines in.
"--so yeah," Bro is saying over Ampora's background noise. "We, uh. We kind of weren't prepared for this."
Karkat is sitting in her lap, watching owlishly. She's wearing something frilly and dark pink and her hair falls over her shoulders in a vast totally disorganized cloud of black waves. It's longer than Jade's, even, and she's clipped it back at her temples with tiny little jeweled clasp thingies that you think at first are squid, but realize have got to be cuttlefish. Her lipstick's the same color as her dress.
Bro shrugs. "I guess we got the gist of it from the internet--Ampora, dude, go get a drink of water or something, jesus--but, uh, Sol's..."
Sol is in fact peeking round the corner. As you watch he sets his horns forward, sparking, and launches himself toward Ampora on the couch. He actually makes contact, jabbing him in the knee with tiny pointy horntips, before sort of flattening his ears and scuttling away again exactly like a kitten attempting to attack a St. Bernard. You can almost see the WHOA HE'S HUGE ABORT ABORT ABORT message flick through his head.
Ampora yelps and lets out a string of curses. The rest of you are staring spellbound. A moment passes, and then Sollux reappears briefly round the corner, flips the seatroll off with both small hands, and vanishes again.
You and Bro look at one another and maybe it's the tension or maybe it's just that that was fucking hilarious, because neither of you can help cracking up like a pair of imbeciles. Even Feferi is smiling. "I see," she says.
"Kind of awkward, if you get what I mean." You glance over at Ampora, who is rubbing his knee and looking outraged.
"Can't I just...kick him round the room a little?" he rasps. "It don't have to mean nothin, even--"
"No." Bro's eyebrows have drawn together in that V that means he isn't going to listen much longer. "No kicking anybody. Jeez, he's a little kid, you're technically supposed to be an adult despite the way you act. Just ignore him, all you're doing is making it worse."
"It's a bit difficult not to react," Feferi says. "Threat displays really ping trolls' instincts."
"Yeah, see? What she said. I ain't losin to no kid." Ampora glowers at the floor, unwrapping another stick of Juicy Fruit. You have to give him credit for replacing the cigarettes with another oral fixation without actually being ordered to, although you think he probably snuck one out the window late last night. "This sucks."
"More to the point, what the hell do we do about it?" you ask.
"Well. I'll have a talk with Sollux. He probably has no idea why he's feeling this way, poor little guy, it has to be terribly confusing for him." She gives Karkat's hair a ruffle. He looks up at her.
"Sollux angry," he says.
"I know, sweetheart. He's having a tough time right now, but this will all get better. I promise." Feferi smiles down at him. "Nobody's ever explained to him about how this kind of thing works."
And you do not envy her being the one who gets to do that. Karkat peers up at her a little longer, and then just gives a sigh and leans against her. "Want Sollux back," he says, in a very small voice. "Want Sol."
"Aw, goddamnit," says Cronus Ampora into the following silence. "I just swallowed my gum."
"I don't get it," says Sollux, who has been coaxed down from the top of the wardrobe in his room with the aid of popsicles. Feferi is sitting crosslegged on the floor, body language open and unthreatening. You'd offered to go and let her handle this without you hanging around, but Sol had insisted that you stay. "I jutht...hate him? He'th horrible. He thmellth like thigaretteth and he coughth all the time which ith groth and he thayth awful thingth and keepth trying to get people to touch him--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, say what?" you cut in. "Has he asked you to...do anything?" Your stomach has gone cold.
"Not me," Sol says, with an air of 'duh,' "you. And Jade and Dirk and Mith Peitheth. Altho the pizza guy. Grown-upth. He doeth that dumb thing with hith eyebrowth and grinth like thith--" an eerily accurate imitation--"and thayth thtuff I don't underthtand motht of the time but like 'onthe you go troll that'th how you'll roll' and "don't knock me till you've tried me' and 'you believe in theckth at firtht thight or thould I walk patht again'."
You and Feferi are both trying not to lose it at this point. Sol's little lispy voice gives the lines about six times more comedy value than Cronus could ever manage. "The pizza guy?" you repeat.
"Yeah, he kinda looked at Cronuth and backed away thlowly. I had to go after him to get the breadthtickth." Sollux glowers.
That's it, and you can't help clutching your ribs in helpless laughter. "Oh my god. Oh my god, we can never ever order from that pizza joint again, I gotta tell Bro to make a note..."
"But they have the good breadthtickth! Thee? He ruinth everything."
Now Feferi is laughing, and finally, thank God, Sol's frown is beginning to ease. After a moment longer a snicker escapes him. "...he jutht ith a complete and total athhole. With dumb finth."
"I can't deny any portion of that statement, dude," you tell him. "Astute observations across the board."
Feferi is wiping at her eyes, still chuckling. "Oh, dear. Sollux, has anyone ever talked to you about quadrants?"
"What'th a quadrant?"
"...I'll start from the beginning."
You get about as much out of her lecture as Sol does: the whole world of troll interaction and instinct and display is so new to you as to be completely unknown. Feferi talks about how trolls separate out their feelings into four specific areas, whereas humans just sort of mash them all together in a big confusing knot. (That much is not news.) "Really, it should be a troll explaining this to you, but the only adult troll around is...not someone I would actually ever ask to discuss this sort of thing."
"And he'th a jerk."
"That too." Feferi sketches out the edges of what he's experiencing now: an illogical but powerfully specific hatred of one individual, a drive to display that hatred at any and all chances. "You sort of want to follow the person around and be really obvious about how much you dislike them. Later, when you're older, you might have a kismesis."
"Ewwww," Sollux says. "I don't want a kithmethith. The whole thing'th groth and I want it to thtop."
"It'll go away. Just...understand that you're feeling this way because of instincts, there's nothing wrong with you, and you'll get past it. Specially once he leaves."
"Is there anywhere else we can put him, in the meantime?" you want to know. "I totally did not intend this to be a long-term thing, I found him outside my club and he couldn't even remember where the hell he was staying so I let him have the couch, and..."
"Equius is a little concerned about his lungs, he'd like him to stay quiet and not do much for a few more days, but if this is a serious problem for you guys--and it kind of looks like it is--I could probably take him." She looks as if the prospect does not exactly delight her. "It might be best for him and Sol to get out of one another's faces, and I can tell this isn't easy on you or Dirk or little Karkat either."
"Feferi--" You take off your shades, rub at your face. "You sure you want to offer that? I mean, nonstop sexual harassment, sounds like such a great deal, let me throw in a lousy attitude and some severely damaged emotional reactions on top of that just for free?"
She looks at you; you realize probably Dr. Z has told her what you told him, the lab testing, Ampora's history. "I won't pretend I'm thrilled at the idea, but if he needs somewhere to be that isn't here, I can put up with him for a little while."
"He could go to thtay with you?" Sol asks, looking uncertain.
"Yes, honey, you don't have to deal with him."
"But. He'th horrible. He'll be horrible to you. And you don't have hornth or pthionicth to get back at him with." He reaches up to rub the tip of his left major horn. "I totally nailed him in the knee, that wath thweet."
You can't help finding this absurdly chivalric. "I think Ms. Peixes can take care of herself, man."
"Of course I can. But it's sweet of you, Sollux." She gives him a radiant smile. "I appreciate your thoughtfulness."
"...you jutht call here if he giveth you any trouble," Sol says, puffing up his narrow chest. "I'll come right over there and thort him out for you."
She hugs him, which makes him squeak and then cling to her, yellow in the face with surprise. The tips of her hair lift, as if she's touching one of those sci-fi static generator thingies. It's too heavy for the effect to lift all of it into the air, but dark filaments rise round her in a cloud nonetheless. It's beautiful. It's beautiful, and you feel a crawling unpleasant weight lift off your shoulders with the prospect of getting rid of Ampora; you could go for hugging Feferi Peixes yourself right about now.
You order Chinese, instead of pizza, just to be safe. You even let the kids stay up past their bedtime--Karkat, hopped up on MSG, scuttles round and round the living room chasing Sol for the last fortune cookie, and as soon as he gets his half, flops down in Bro's lap and falls almost immediately asleep.
"Long day," you say, nodding at his lapful.
"The fuckin' longest. God, I feel a thousand years old."
"Me too," Sollux agrees from his perch on the back of the couch. He isn't sparking; you realize that the whole apartment no longer smells of ozone. "Like a million yearth old."
"Aaah, little dude, you got a way to go yet before you get to say that. You feelin' better?"
"Yeth." Sollux slithers down to sit between you and Bro. "The kitchen'th thafe."
"Well, good. We can all sleep better knowing that, man. --I got some work done on the voiceover mix for the next video, Bro, not much but some. We should maybe be able to get that up this weekend."
He nods. "Good deal. How's the traffic looking?"
"It's pretty steady. I think if we can get some ads in the CityPaper or something we should get the numbers up. Oh, shit, I was gonna look up that thing, that trial last year. You remember that? On the news?"
"Not really," Bro says. "I was workin' nights, didn't get to see much TV, remember?"
"Right, yeah. Okay. Maybe I'll do that tonight."
Sollux is leaning against Bro, bleary-eyed and half-asleep. You look from him to the curled-up form of Karkat, and back, and finish your General Tso's.
About an hour later you regret it. The Scratch trial coverage is readily available on YouTube, the same film clips over and over, cut together in different sequences or just replayed. You know better than to read the comments. The idea of trollfighting rings is sick enough; the case as it's described is fucking terrible; the...evidence...is worse, far worse. You're so focused on the little troll on the screen--she's tiny, barely bigger than Sol--that you don't immediately recognize the dark-haired guy who's holding her.
The bespectacled dark-haired guy.
You haven't seen or heard from John Egbert in...whoa, years now. A long time ago you'd been kids and palled around on the internet playing shitty MMORPGs--he'd been a good guy, derpy and with some odd tastes in cinema, but a good guy, and you aren't surprised to see how miserable and worried he looks in the videos. The little troll girl seems to live with him. Of all the goddamn people to adopt a troll, Dave Strider's quondam best friend is...maybe not the least likely, John would probably be pretty awesome with trolls, you have to admit.
The news clip on the screen announces the verdict; you push away your thoughts and listen close. Scratch's face swims out of focus, jerks back in; the cameraman is distracted. A list of names, a list of verdicts. Guilty. Guilty, guilty. Scratch goes pale. These are trolls' names; he is charged with, and found guilty of, first-degree murder in their deaths. Obviously this turn of events takes him by surprise.
What had Cronus said? Huge clusterfuck? But the bad guy just got--
Whoa. On the little screen a woman is yelling over the din of the crowd; the camera pulls back to get her in frame. She's beside John, who's holding the troll--who looks exhausted, feverish, you notice the scars criscrossing every inch of visible skin despite the shitty resolution--and the noise quietens enough for you to hear what the judge says. Belongs in state custody.
There's an immediate uproar from the crowd--you can't tell if they're arguing or agreeing--and then wow the bailiffs just grabbed her out of John's arms and she blurs, all fangs and claws and fury and terror, fighting them, fighting everything. John reaches for her. She goes still. You can't see what happened, just that...wait, is John bleeding? Is...
You watch as the figure of your old friend sways. Something is very wrong. He's staring at her. Then the focus jabs in close and you can see clearly as he collapses on the floor, and it cuts briefly to static before returning to the porcelain-faced news anchor. "Drama today in the courtroom--" she begins. You stop the video.
One, two, three long breaths, concentrate, concentrate...and yeah, okay, you aren't gonna be able to hang on to dinner. Goddamn.
Bro knocks on the door when you're pretty much done hurling. "You okay, kid?"
"Ngh. Yeah. Gimme a minute." You rinse your mouth, wash your face. He gives you a concerned look when you emerge, and tips up your chin with a finger.
"Jesus, you look terrible. What's up?"
You have the laptop open on the table. He looks at you: you shrug. "Watch it, dude. I can tell you what happens but it...it's not the same." And you think he has to see this too, to get everything it implies.
He doesn't puke, but you can tell watching the videos is as hard on him as it was on you. You couldn't help seeing Sollux or Karkat in that room, being torn out of your arms and carried away. Probably he can't either. "Christ," he says, drawing the word out, a soft astonished hiss. "That's that Egbert kid, ain't it? Your old friend. He's in this too?"
"Yeah. I don't...I don't know what happened to him just there at the end, but it didn't look good. This is...well, I guess it fucked Ampora up pretty bad. Worse than he was already fucked up, which is saying something. And the others out there, where he came from. There were other people there supporting trolls, man, there's...we...I hate to say could use this but..."
"I know what you mean," he says, waving this away. "For one thing we gotta get in touch with Ampora's people, talk to whoever's organizing shit out there. And you should maybe look up Egbert. See if he's okay, at least. Let's quit fuckin' around and get some work done, kid."
It's getting on for three by the time you get to bed, but you think at least you probably won't dream.
-- caligulasAquarium (CA) began trolling turntechGodhead (TG) --
CA: hey sport
CA: strider ansvwer your messages
CA: cmon im fuckin beggin you
CA: vwait are you asleep or somethin?
TG: i was
TG: whats with the volkswagen thing jesus fucking christ i thought you typed like an imbecile before
TG: this is worse
TG: also its 3:15 am
TG: shit you learned punctuation
TG: very good now go the fuck to sleep
TG: blocking you
CA: its my old quirk is all, vw and wv look like aquarius signs, see?
TG: the actual fuck
TG: are you talking about
TG: no wait i really dont want to know
CA: my typin quirk
CA: i vwas usin eridans for like
CA: solidarity i guess?
TG: listen to me very carefully ampora
TG: are you listening
TG: LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE AND GO TO SLEEP
-- turntechGodhead (TG) has blocked caligulasAquarium (CA) --
You wonder, turning off your phone, what the hell he wanted at this time of night, but you're too tired and pissed off to care.
Note: this chapter explains a little of the crossover confusion between Loophole and UFUT. Not all of it, but some. I know people are asking (perfectly understandable!) questions about the fact that some characters appear in both stories with no obvious explanations, and saccharinesylph and I are working to clear up these issues. We appreciate your patience.
When you wake up the room is full of that grey sourceless light that means it's been raining for a while and intends to continue raining for the foreseeable future. You stare up at the ceiling, rubbing sleep-grodge from your eyes, and wonder for the first time in a couple days if there's anything interesting for breakfast.
Your phone tells you it's getting on for nine in the morning, which is way later than you normally get up, what with the kids, but you had a pretty late night last night. Karkat's evidently up and about already, his pile scattered over the floor the way it is when he crawls out of it.
You're going to have to get him more pillows, he's growing. Yawning, you wander down the hall to the bathroom and notice that hey, look, nobody's done that thing with the toothpaste where they squeeze it from the middle of the fucking tube and then don't wash out the basin when they're done. What a nice change. Also, nobody is sitting in the kitchen having a bitchfight with Sollux or clearing his throat every couple of minutes in an ineffective annoying rasp. Bro is reading the newspaper; Karkat is stacking cheerios into miniature towers, Sollux is peeling a tangerine no-hands in a flicker of psionics and trying to read the comics page at the same time.
You'll text Mister Purple back later, when you feel like it. Probably.
"Who wants to help make pancakes?" you inquire.
When the phone rings you ignore it: you've got pancake batter on your hands and are trying to stop it getting all over the kids as well, since Karkat wants very enthusiastically to be involved and Sollux can't stop messing around with the empty eggshells, which he's making orbit Karkat's head like a bunch of little white asteroids. It rings four times before Bro sighs and leans his chair back so he can reach to hook it off the counter. "Yeah."
"Karkles, no, dude, you can't eat the batter before it's cooked, even if there's chocolate chips, that way badness lies," you're saying, so you don't quite catch the beginning of Bro's sentence. You catch the end, though.
"..Strider speaking--you what?"
You turn from the stove. Bro is sitting up straight. "Where?"
"What is it, man?"
"Jesus fuck. Okay, yeah. Yeah. We'll come get him. Don't...uh. Yeah. How much?" He rubs at his forehead the way he does when he's getting one of the sparkly headaches. "Shit. That due now, or...okay. You take credit cards?"
"He's not...fuck, never mind. Okay. Fine. Yeah." He hangs up and takes off his shades for a moment. You can see the shadows under his eyes, and give him a what the fuck was that all about look. "Animal Control," he says. "Guess what they found in a ditch by the Citgo on Route Seven this morning."
You stare. "Huh?"
"Someone called 'em out to come pick up a dead troll. Turns out he ain't dead, just dead drunk. And he's a weepy drunk, apparently. Won't say anythin' other than 'Strider.'"
"Fuck," you say, fumbling for your phone, pulling up the text from last night. Strider what? Strider you said to leave me alone? "Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck, I'm gonna murder him myself, what the hell--"
"Gets better. His owners, which is us according to AC, gotta pay a five-hundred-buck fine for lettin' their troll be a public nuisance." Bro sighs, puts his shades back on. "Guess it's gonna be ramen for dinner for the rest of the month."
Karkat and Sollux have been staring at you throughout this exchange and now Sollux pipes up. "What's going on?"
"Your favorite person in the whole damn world just pulled an incredibly dumb, selfish, bullshit stunt is what. I can't believe Feferi let him out."
"I don't think she did," Bro says: the phone is ringing again and he looks at the caller ID. "--Hey. Yeah. Animal Control just called."
You can hear Feferi's voice three feet away. Bro pulls the phone away from his ear, wincing. "Yeah, I dunno, he went off and got hold of a handle of Rikaloff or some shit, I'm about to go pick his ass up. No, it's not your fault, don't say that, this is all him, goddamn nautical-themed purple drama whore that he is. --Yeah, sure, I guess, meet me at the pound?"
He looks over the shades at you. You sigh. "I'll stay here."
"--What?" he's asking the phone. "Why? Oh, for fuck's sake...Fine. Yeah. Okay, he'll meet you at the pound." He drops it back into the charge cradle without saying goodbye. "Peixes says it oughta be you, kid. On account of how you already rescued him once, I guess."
"I dunno, dude, I might just run over him with the car a bunch of times, seriously, five hundred dollars?"
"Go," he says, and throws you the car keys. "Aim straight at him, don't fuck up the headlights. Hood dents are okay."
It's Saturday morning; there's not a lot of traffic, you make good time, but Feferi's there before you. She drives...a pink Geo Tracker, apparently, covered in bumper stickers. You are not surprised. When you park Bro's Buick and get out she hurries over, wearing a pink coat and mittens, her expression at odds with the cheery outfit. Under her umbrella she's shivering.
"I'm so sorry," she's saying.
"I didn't...keep an eye on him. He just climbed out the window and took off after I went to bed. I thought he was just sleeping late, Dave, I thought I would let him rest, but..."
"Look, seriously, you got nothing to apologize for, this is all him. And maybe me. Fuck. Have you seen him yet?"
"No, they're waiting for you. They said he isn't talking but he's been vomiting."
"I am so not at all surprised." You rub at your forehead. "Okay, let's get this shit over with. We're gonna have to take him to the clinic, I figure."
"I already called Equius. He's...he's ready." Probably what she means is he's fucking furious, which is pretty much exactly on the same page as you right now.
Inside, the pound smells of industrial disinfectant that isn't quite strong enough to overcome a lingering stink of combined piss and shit. Frightened animals. You show the guy at the desk your ID and he leads you and Feferi down a fluorescent-lit corridor to a roomful of cages, mostly empty: a couple of dogs down one end, a cat, and Cronus Ampora, curled up on his side, a sticky, leather-clad lump of misery.
"You oughta keep better control of your pets, Mister Strider," says the guy. He unclips a ring of keys from the belt of his grey work fatigues and opens the cage door. "Hey, troll, out. Your bail's been posted."
He laughs at his little joke and you manage not to punch him, but it's pretty difficult. Cronus raises his head, looking up through indescribable hair, his face sickly off-grey where it isn't purple with snot and tears. He's drenched. He smells of whiskey and vomit. Beside you, Feferi makes a little helpless noise.
"What the fuck is your problem?" you say.
"...Dave?" His voice is a wreck.
"No, the goddamn Wizard of Oz. What were you thinking? On what planet is this not complete and utter bullshit?"
"W-was goin home," he croaks, and your chest hurts all the way up into your throat. You ignore the expression on the front-desk guy's face.
"Come on, get your ass out of there. You could also try and apologize to Ms. Peixes, you know, like, if you felt you were up to the challenge, douchelord." It's evident that he's not gonna get out of the cage on his own, and you are furious on a number of levels as you reach down to grab his hand and pull him to his feet. He's way too warm to the touch, despite his sodden clothes, and shivering badly. His breathing sounds fucking terrible, thick and labored. You want to throttle him. You want to shake him till his awful piranha teeth rattle. You want to put a blanket around his stupid goddamn shoulders and get him to Zahhak as quick as you possibly can.
"I gotta pay this fine right now or do I get a thing in the mail?" you demand of the front-desk guy.
"Uh, you have to pay the fee to get it released to your custody, and then there's a notice of the fine that gets sent out from the city office."
"Fuck. How much is the release fee?"
$550 down the drain for one night's work, you think, good fucking going, Ampora. He's leaning heavily on you and Feferi, who's holding up his other side, and he takes this moment to gag miserably and deposit a little more rotgut on the holding-room floor. Thanks. Thank you very much. That helps. You're glad you didn't get a chance to eat breakfast.
The guy scowls. "Jesus. Get it outta here, I just mopped that."
"We're going." You hate the way Ampora cringes at the it. You hate the it. You hate a lot of things right now. "Way to take humane care of trolls in your custody, by the way. Were you gonna do anything about the fact that he's obviously dehydrated and sick as hell and he spent the night in a freezing ditch?"
"Hey, don't look at me, it's your goddamn pet, you oughta take better care of it--"
Feferi wipes at Ampora's face with a tissue from her purse. "I'll cover the fee," she says, cutting the guy off. "C'mon. We've got you, Cronus. We'll take care of you, you'll feel better soon. I promise."
He snivels. It's the first time you've ever actually seen someone snivel. You're suddenly very tired, and you just jerk your head at the guy. "Show me where to sign, let's get going."
You text Bro from the car-detail place.
TG: douchebag retrieval accomplished
TG: ill bring the car back once they finish with it
TT: You better have gotten a good impression of those horns.
TG: sorry man
TG: opportunity did not arise
TG: otoh you will be glad to know your upholstery is getting cleaned for the first time in that cars entire service life
TG: its a milestone we should celebrate
TG: post about it on facebook
TT: He hurled in the back seat, didn't he.
TG: technically yes
TG: and also a number of other locations
TT: Shit. Sorry, kid.
TT: Did you pay the fine on the card?
TG: nope turns out they charge you fifty bucks to reclaim your lost property
TG: on top of the fine
TG: well get something in the mail about that and where to send the check or whatever
TG: feferi paid the release fee though
TT: She didn't have to do that.
TG: i know
TG: would have argued but it was kind of difficult with a barfing seatroll to deal with
TG: a mess
TT: How bad is it?
TG: dr z says he doesnt know yet how long hes gonna have to spend at the clinic
TG: so were looking at fuck knows how much money in vet bills as well
TG: hes pretty dehydrated
TG: whatever shit was already wrong with him got worse
TG: hes got some kind of chest infection and hes running a temperature of like 100 which zahhak says is a big deal for purplebloods
TG: apparently their normal temperature is extra low or something
TG: i almost have to admire the sheer commitment and determination with which he fucks shit up
TG: like hes the definition of fuckup on urbandictionary
TG: fuckup extraordinaire
TG: one fuckup to skeeve them all
TG: one fuckup to cost them money
TG: one fuckup to insult them all throw shit at their kids and puke in their goddamn car
TG: i cant handle this bro
TT: You're at the point in the rambling monologue where extended metaphors are getting away from you.
TG: yeah youre right
TG: my bad
TG: i just cant stop seeing him all wrecked like that
TG: i almost punched the dude at the pound for calling him an it
TT: Admirable fuckin' restraint there, kid.
TG: oh right one other thing
TG: almost forgot
TG: remember ampora said he had a cousin or whatever trolls call that
TG: who incidentally types like less of a tool than he does
TG: guess who owns him
TT: Lindsay Lohan.
TG: no bonus round for you
TG: feferis sister
TG: ahahaha dude you dont even know how perfect that is
TG: twin sisters
TG: their mom's the fuckin evil galactic empress of betty crocker
TG: or was anyway i dunno i didnt ask for details
TG: she was helping zahhak clean him up and saw his fucked-up purple roots and was like 'omg now i know why he looks so familiar'
TT: So wait, didn't you say Ampora's cousin was involved with the trial somehow?
TT: Does Peixes know about all that shit?
TG: yeah i think so
TG: ampora junior was like blackdating vriska or something
TG: might be an opportunity to like link up our shit with their movement out on the west coast
TG: but im gonna wait to ask her about it in depth until the current crisis gets a little less critical
TT: No kidding.
TT: Talking of. Sollux wants to know if Mister Purple is going to die.
TG: tell him probably not
TG: dr z is super pissed off but also determined
TG: guy even managed a facial expression it was wild
TT: Sollux will be crushed. Stop by the ice-cream place on the way back and bring him something to help him get over the disappointment.
TG: ten four
TG: ok i think theyre done decontaminating the car
TG: didnt have to burn it after all
TG: ill be home soon
Dr. Z calls late that afternoon with an update. His voice sounds strained: you think probably what patience he has left is on its last couple of stretching shreds. "I've had to intubate," he says, "which is I think as much a benefit to us as to him, because he can't talk at the moment."
"You can do that? I mean--"
"I called in a favor from an internist friend and got her to lend me a human laryngoscope and sundry other items of importance," he says, drily. "Which is probably several different sorts of ethics breach, so I'd appreciate it if you kept that to yourself."
Whoa, did Zahhak just snark at you? You're almost proud. "Sure, right, no problem. But, uh. Intubation. Isn't that kinda serious business?"
"Yes. I don't think he'll need it for very long, though. He's responding to the antibiotics, which is a pleasant surprise. With that history I had feared..." He trails off, clears his throat. "Well. Never mind. He's stable, and I think probably if nothing untoward happens I should be able to dispense with the ventilator tomorrow."
You are suddenly angry again, as angry as you'd been this morning seeing him in that cage. "I don't guess he gave you any reasonable explanation for this whole clusterfuck, right?"
"Not coherently. He seems to be under the impression that everybody here loathes him and wishes he would go away, and that everything he does is 'epic fuckin fail.'" You can hear the inverted commas around the words. "I have not actually asked him if he planned to go off and eat worms, but then I didn't really think it necessary."
You snicker, involuntarily, a little jagged not-very-funny noise. "Dave?" he asks.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," you say. What the fuck had he been going to ask you last night when you told him to shut up and leave you alone? What had it been? You knew he was unstable, you knew he was prone to doing incredibly dumb bullshit and you just blew him off...
"...know this whole business has been particularly hard on you," Zahhak's saying. "Fe...Ms. Peixes is a little concerned."
"Nah, it's cool. I'm fine. Pissed off is all. I hope he doesn't expect me to make a habit of rescuing his dumb ass when he gets himself in trouble."
Zahhak is quiet for a moment. "What?" you ask.
"Nothing. If you'll pardon the advice from a veterinarian rather than a physician, I think it might be best if you got some rest, Dave. Jake has been incessantly volunteering to go over there and babysit so that you and Dirk can take a little time for yourselves."
You stare at the phone. "Huh? No, dude, seriously, it's not like we're cracking up over here or anything. I'm just pissed off."
...he'd looked so miserably frightened even just being in the clinic at all, let alone having Zahhak poke at him and listen to his chest...
"Dave?" he's saying again.
"Yeah, sorry, woolgathering. What were you saying?"
"Just that if you really are in any shape for it, there are some forms and things I need you to sign for him. I know you aren't his legal owner, but in his situation without the wherewithal to pay the fine himself--"
...you want to shake him till his awful piranha teeth rattle...
Yesterday he'd been just a couple feet away on the couch cracking his horrible fucking gum and making jokes about the TV news anchors and pitching awful woo at Feferi. How had he gone from that to half-fucking dead in a ditch, is what you want to know, and your chest hurts all the way up to your throat again and you just do not fucking know what to do.
"It's quite all right if you'd rather not just now," Zahhak says, and just like that you know you have to go.
"I'll be there in a bit. Bring him an ironic get-well Garfield balloon or some shit. Magnetic poetry."
"Very appropriate. I mean it about rest, though. I will remove you from the premises myself if necessary."
"I'll be good," you say, and a weird stupid almost-drunken exhilaration flickers through you. What the fuck is even going on, you wonder, hanging up, and find Sol looking up at you in blue-and-red concern.
"What'th going on?"
"I gotta go head down to the clinic for a bit," you tell him. He scowls.
"Can you take a methage for me?"
"Sure, dude, what is it?"
"Thtay here a thec?" He scuttles off to his room. In a minute or two he returns with what appears to be a folded-over sheet of paper covered in crayon drawings.
...Oh. It's a don't-get-well card.
"Make thure he getth thith," Sollux tells you.
"Word is bond, Sol. I will place it in his hands my own self."
"Okay. But come back thoon. Dirk thaid we could watch the Pirateth of the Caribbean movieth tonight."
"Man, you guys are some lucky kids, you know that? Okay. I don't expect to stay real long. I'll call."
Sollux nods, and then does a thing he hasn't done for a while: hugs your legs, as much of you as he can easily reach. You bite your lip and pet his smaller horns, the more sensitive ones. "You take care of Karkles and Bro for me, okay? Keep 'em in line."
It's totally the detergent they used on the car upholstery that's making your eyes water on the drive over. No fucking question at all.
illustrated by thelunneybin!
YOU ARE TERIIBLE AND EVRYTHIING ABOUT YOU MAKES ME MAD
II HOPE THE VET GIIVES YOU A SHOT
PS THIIS IIS YOU
He's added a drawing of Ampora. At least you think it's a drawing of Ampora, there's a lot of purple and black crayon surrounded by more frowny faces. You make a mental note to ask Sollux why he double-draws all of his 'I's in red and blue.
Why is this cute.
You read through the forms before signing, a habit you picked up from Bro, and okay, yeah, sure, you agree to be held financially liable for the fine associated with one count of public nuisance behavior by the independent troll known as Cronus Ampora on the grounds that aforementioned troll is without a responsible owner and lacks necessary funds, this agreement to be self-limiting and declared to pertain to this one case alone, yadda yadda. The other form is consent-to-treat, since he doesn't have an owner and he wasn't in any state to sign things himself when you brought him in. "It's just legalese," Feferi says. "We have to cover our butts."
"Talking of covering butts, how much is all this gonna end up costing? Ballpark figure." You dash off D-squiggle S-squiggle on the dotted line. "And can we set up some kind of payment plan, because to be brutally frank it's not like the Strider household is exactly rolling in dough."
Feferi looks pained. "We can discuss all that later. There's options." You wonder if Ampora's West Coast pals could be persuaded to cover his vet bills, and sigh.
"Okay, but...like...we kind of need to know. Budgeting and shit." What are you going to need to not buy, and for how long. She just nods. "There anything else you needed me to autograph?"
"I think that's it. Just...while you're here, would you like to see him?"
No, you think, actually, I would not, I would like to go home to my family and watch shitty pirate movies and try to figure out how the fuck we're gonna pay for all this and make rent, instead of visiting with the most expensive goddamn troll I've ever met--
After all, you promised Sol you'd give Ampora his don't-get-well card personally, didn't you?
He looks...small. Your first impression is that he's barely more than a kid, which you think is probably pretty accurate, chronological age notwithstanding. He's lying propped up in a camp bed. The clinic isn't normally prepared to deal with human-sized patients: you think you recognize the bed from Zahhak's office, the one he naps on when he has to stay here super late.
Cronus is covered with tubes and wires. An IV line snakes into the back of one hand. Something glistens on the rims of his gill-covers; his eyes are closed, his hair untidily falling over his face. The purple of his earfins is very pale. They've taken the tube out, at least: he's just got an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. "Jesus," you say.
"It looks worse than it is, I promise." Zahhak stands in the doorway. "His sats are back up where they're supposed to be; he started to breathe better just after I called. He's full of erythromycin and responding nicely."
"How did it get so bad?" you want to know. "I mean..I guess he was pretty sick when we got here." You can't not remember how his breathing sounded, gross as fuck, wet and bubbling.
"His lungs have been...damaged. By what was done to him. I think it was fortunate that you brought him in when you did." He doesn't say more, and you feel a cold sinking in your stomach.
"But he's going to be okay, right?"
"Yes. We had a bad moment this afternoon, but he's doing better. You could tell him, when he wakes up, that if he continues to do things like abuse alcohol and lie around in cold ditches all night with an infection already starting, he should expect this kind of result. I tried explaining as much and he just sort of looked at me blankly. I can see why physicians get frustrated."
Your hands are curled into fists, in your jacket pockets. You knew he was a self-destructive trainwreck and you still blew him off when he texted you, the thought rises up unbidden.
Zahhak is looking at you curiously. You haul your poker-face back into position. "So any idea yet how long he's gonna have to stay here?"
"Several days, at least. And then he'll need to take it easy for a long while after that. Obviously he can't stay with you, I wouldn't advise it for a number of reasons. Ms. Peixes is trying to get in touch with his friends."
"Yeah, I was wondering if they could come get him. I don't think this town's a healthy environment."
Zahhak actually chuckles. "Perhaps not."
In the bed, Ampora stirs, moving slightly; after a moment his eyes open. Zahhak straightens up. "I can let you have ten minutes. Don't excite him."
"Dude, air excites him, if you go by how he approaches hitting on everything he sees." But you just uncurl your fists, take your hands out of your pockets, and attempt to look smooth.
He stares up at you when you go over to the bed. You have never, ever been more glad for your shades. "Sup."
"Ten out of ten, man. Superb identification skills. How you feeling?"
"....Terrible," he says in a little voice. You hook over a chair.
"You look fucking terrible. Here, Sol made you this." You hand over the card. His eyes widen, then narrow, as he reads the crayon text.
"...ain't nobody ever thought to make me a hate card before," he croaks. "Shit's downright touchin. W-why are you here?"
"To bring you that." He looks up quickly. "And sign some shit for Dr. Z. --Ampora, what the fuck is this even all about? What were you thinking?"
His sort-of-hopeful expression crumples. "'s dumb."
"Wow, understatement of the century. That was so dumb it could be seen from Mars."
"...that don't even make sense."
"Yeah, you're throwing off my game something awful here, but seriously, what were you planning to do?"
"Hitch home." Cronus fiddles with the IV, not looking at you. "Figured I might as well get outta your hair. You havin made it all kinds a clear that I should quit buggin you an all."
Your throat hurts. "You seriously planned to hitchhike across the fucking country? While wasted? Because I snapped at you in a text message? Jesus Christ, Ampora, are you insane?"
"...'m a f-fuckup," he says, and you see purple tears glittering in his eyes, and you are so not up for crying, you are all kinds of not okay with that. "Can't even fuckin leave town without failin all over the place, I'm, I fuckin suck, Strider, why are you puttin up with me, why'd you bail me out, why are you guys helpin, you must hate me--"
Oh God he won't stop. "Ampora. Cronus. Hey. Shut up a second, okay?"
"Shut up." You hand him the box of tissues; he dabs at his eyes, smearing purple. "I'm not up for this. I am so completely not up for this bullshit right now. Any other day, maybe, but you just won the Dave Has Zero Patience Left For This lottery."
"Look, dude, you texted me at like three in the morning. I shouldn't have snapped, that was shitty of me, but...what gives? You were fine yesterday, how'd you get so goddamn upset that you'd go and pull some bullshit like this?"
He stares at you some more. You stare back. "Was moving to Feferi's that massively traumatic?"
But something was, you can tell. You see again that weird yearning in his eyes, just a moment before it got covered up by awkward sleaze. "Then what?"
"I just. Figured I been here long enough was all."
So he'd texted you at three a.m. to say, what, he was thinking of leaving? And you'd told him to fuck off.
"Jesus, I said leave me alone, I didn't mean get the fuck out of Dodge, okay? None of us hate you. Except Sol, and that's just weird. We might be kind of like 'stop hitting on me already' but none of us wanted you gone. We were worried, dude. Pissed off, but worried too."
He hides his face in his hands. "I fuck everything up," he groans.
"Well, I gotta say you try pretty hard, but nobody can fuck everything up. That's kind of a big claim even for you."
"I'm sorry," he says, and it's dragged out into a parody of the word: so-hoooorry. It's whiny-kid and it's also pathetic-teenager, and you suddenly get why Bro got so damn pissed at you when you would moan about whatever dumb bullshit you didn't do right, back when you were little.
"Yeah," you say, "don't be sorry. Just be better. I get that you don't have a lot of agency, dude, I get that, you're a troll in a human world and that fucking sucks but jesus christ would you just make a goddamn effort?"
Cronus sniffles. "I can't b-be better. This is what I am."
"What, a whiny little sleazebag with no sense of personal boundaries?" You're angry, now, you're actually fucking angry, and goddamnit if you never got to wallow in misery nobody else should either. "Yeah, okay, fine, if that does you, but dude, it seems like kind of a shitty stopping point."
He looks at you with big wounded purple eyes and he snivels and you cannot stop yourself reaching out and taking him by the shoulders and giving him a firm shake. "How old even are you, anyway? Eighteen? And you're still fucking around like a little kid who doesn't get the concept of personal responsibility as a thing that exists?"
Cronus's head wobbles when you shake him, and he makes a little surprised noise. "D-Dave--"
"No, shut up, I'm not done." You realize again that he isn't human, because wouldn't a human get what you were talking about in the first place? Do trolls just not...what, assert themselves against the world?
...Of course they fucking don't, you think. They're legally owned animals.
You rub at your forehead. "Okay, so, you've fucked things up. Doesn't mean you have to go on doing it. Like, maybe consider learning something from what you've done, instead of trying the same shit over and over and expecting something different to happen. We're trying to change the situation here, that's what this whole thing is about, trying to make shit less objectively terrible for trolls, but you gotta meet us halfway, dude. You gotta fucking try."
His lip trembles, and you sigh. "Think about it, yeah?" God, you're tired. You are tired and heartsore and you can hear your Bro's voice in your own words and it makes you feel fucking ancient. He takes a breath, and you think he's about to launch into another variation on the theme, but he just catches his breath wrong and starts to cough, a rusty hacking cough that doubles him over. He can't seem to stop. The beeps on the heart monitor speed up; he's going purple in the face and you don't think he's getting enough oxygen from that mask thing and you're about to shout for Dr. Z, but you remember the miserable fear in his eyes the first time the vet went near him and you just reach to slip your arm round his shoulders, help him sit up, rub his back.
The fit lets go after another couple of extremely unpleasant moments. He droops against you, gasping, his eyes squeezed shut. The heart monitor's not slowing, shit, maybe you do need to...okay, no, yeah, there it goes. You don't take your arm away, just letting him lean against you, rubbing circles on his back with your fingertips. You can feel his breathing. He's using accessory muscles, just the way people do when they're having an asthma attack. You remember those: your own chest is tight. "Goddamn," you say. "You're a mess, dude."
He swallows. "I know."
"Okay then. Long's we're on the same page."
When he rests his head against your shoulder you don't protest any more than you would if it were Karkat or Sollux sick and wanting comfort. He's too hot, much too hot, but he seems less distressed. You think, not for the first time, that if he'd spent his childhood somewhere other than a lab cage, he might possibly not be such a complete disaster; if someone had been around to give him a goddamn hug when he needed one, or tell him not to be a gigantic shit half the time, he might not flip out quite so hard and fast.
Zahhak appears in the doorway, not visibly surprised to see you with your arm round Cronus. "Time's up," he says, not ungently. Cronus stirs: he's half-dozed off leaning against you, like the kids do sometimes.
"Wait," he croaks. "Wait, 'fore you go, can I have a favor?"
"Depends what it is," says Zahhak, coming forward and fiddling with the monitors. You can see, if not concern, at least care on his face, and think maybe you kind of suck at not exciting patients. "Drinks are off the menu."
"No, I just...can I have somethin to write with? I gotta send a message to the asshole psionic kid." The card is on the table beside his bed. You still don't really know why it's cute.
You and Zahhak exchange glances; he shrugs slightly. "Very well. But make it brief, Cronus, you need rest."
"No worries, I ain't in a loquacious kinda mood." He coughs again, sounding exhausted. Zahhak fishes out a pocket notebook and a ballpoint pen, hands them over. Cronus eyes the pen with a little moue of distaste. "You don't....maybe got a purple one? No, okay, okay, sorry, forget I asked."
Bro has pizza and popcorn--you have a brief flash of worry over money, pizza isn't a necessary expense, but push it away--and everyone's clearly impatient as fuck when you get back. You don't go into detail about your visit, therefore, but you do hand Cronus's folded-up note to Sollux. "That's for you. I didn't read it but I'm dying of curiosity, man, just FYI."
Karkat crawls into your lap the second you flop down on the couch, and you run a hand through his hair. "Pirates," he demands. Sol is staring at the note; Bro is giving you an eyebrow. You shrug. "I dunno, dude. Put the movie on."
He puts the movie on. By the end of the first one Karkat is asleep, full of pizza and pirate adventures, and Sol is crunching up the unpopped popcorn from the bottom of the bowl. You have to kind of wince at that, but you figure troll fangs are pretty hardcore. He insists he can stay up for the second movie. You're pretty sure this is empty bravado.
"No, I'm not tired, I can totally thtay up, you guyth--" huge yawn--"theriouthly."
"Uh-huh," says Bro. "Well, I dunno if Dave and I can. Been a long day, you know."
You are tired. You have been tired all fucking day, and the conversation with Cronus hadn't helped. Sollux looks up at you, at Karkat sleeping in your lap, and then puts the popcorn bowl down and climbs up to sit beside you on the couch. "It'th becauthe of him, ithn't it."
"Yup, I had to haul ass all over creation on his behalf today." You ruffle Sol's hair. "I'm okay, little dude. Just need some beauty sleep." And not to have to come up with fuck knows how much money for his vet bills as well as the nuisance fine, but Sol doesn't need to worry about all that shit. "What'd he say in his note? Do I need to threaten gross bodily harm?"
Sollux snickers. "Groth bodily harm!"
"I'll put it on the schedule for tomorrow." You take the folded-up piece of paper when he offers it to you:
your art sucks and you spell i vwrong
We promise fuller explanations for crossover questions are forthcoming. Again, thank you for your patience with scheduling and pesterlog coding woes.
Jade texts you around one.
GG: good morning dave!!
GG: or actually...i guess its afternoon XD
GG: you wanted an update! so ok feferi took the night shift so dr z could get some sleep...
GG: i got there about six and we had a lot of work to do so im sorry i didnt message you earlier...but i figured you could use some rest too!!
TG: had a slow morning here at casa strider
TG: bro went to work, i took the kids to the park
TG: shit was domestic as all get out
TG: this goes on i gotta get me a pipe and fedora seriously it is a mismatch with my idiom jade
TG: ampora give you any trouble
GG: nope! hes pretty wiped out
GG: spends most of his time sleeping which is kinda the best thing right now...
GG: i dont think he likes it here :\
TG: yeah hes got this kind of thing about doctors offices
TG: dude has the saddest backstory i ever did hear
TG: it is like broadway musical levels of sad and fucked-up
GG: :( i only know hes got some scarring and adhesions...we didnt have a lot of time to take a full history when he got here
TG: short version he was a lab rat
TG: ill tell you what i know about it if you want but its gross
TG: probably dr z is the one to hand out the deets he knows all the multisyllabic words and shit
TG: anyway so amporas not being a pain in the ass right now
GG: not at all!! but...last night...feferi told me he was all like asking her stuff...and when he realized who she is and that his cousin knows her sister he suddenly started being all super polite
GG: all like yes maam no maam
GG: she went like.....
GG: what gives???
GG: she said he told her something like how her sisters the only thing keeping little ampora from turning out like him :O
GG: can you believe it??
TG: dont tell me then he went into this long vwoeful tirade about how terrible he is
GG: yes :( actually
TG: listen jade
TG: next time he pulls that shit
TG: tell him he gets like two vwhiny self deprecating monologues per day max
TG: no more
TG: then cut that down to one
TG: like maybe give him a token for each day he doesnt go into full on moaning
TG: twelve step program for not being an insufferable douche
GG: arent you being a little hard on him though?? i mean he is sick and all
GG: and you said hes had a horrible life!
TG: yeah hes sick which is in large part due to the aforementioned insufferable douchebaggery
TG: fuck i dont know jade
TG: we gotta talk to his people
TG: that is if he even has any friends out there
TG: im starting to doubt that
GG: yeah :(
GG: i know feferi called a bunch of places long distance overnight but she didnt say anything about getting hold of people who could help so
GG: im thinking she didnt get through??
TG: she call her sister yet
TG: peixes one and peixes two are they really both named feferi
TG: for fucks sake
GG: i think its some kind of family heirloom name? like kings are all called jeff the whatever numberth...
TG: haha wow the feferi peixes dynasty that fucking blows my mind
TG: tangent over
TG: has your feferi called other feferi
GG: not that i know of.....
GG: but i can ask! shes sleeping now
GG: hang on a sec dave...
You minimize the window and go back to pulling up your tracks and figuring out what to take for your double session tonight. It's gonna be another Jake Harley babysitting extravaganza; you agreed to take the extra gig because, well, money. The kids are playing in the living room. You can hear them talking busily amongst themselves.
GG: ok back!!
GG: he uh...
GG: he wants to know if youre going to come by the clinic today?
TG: i gotta work remember
TG: earn some goddamn pennies here
GG: you could swing by on your way to the club!
TG: yeah no
TG: not gonna happen
TG: did you see the card sol made him though
GG: omg yes!!!! <3
GG: that is the most adorable thing!
TG: i know
TG: he wrote sol a note back
TG: which was also sort of adorable
TG: i gotta say shit around here is a lot nicer with him gone though
TG: less orbiting silverware and hair glop all over the bathroom mirror
TG: how do you even get hair glop on the bathroom mirror
GG: 8) i dont know!
GG: very enthusiastic application maybe...
GG: ok ill tell him you cant come over :(
TG: ok thanks
TG: and ask peixes about what if anything she found out
TG: keep it chilly harls
GG: the chilliest!
They're coloring. After some grief over who got the black crayon you'd just sighed and picked up another box, and so now both Karkat and Sollux are happily engaged in scribbling all over pieces of printer paper and mumbling to themselves. Nobody colors quite so intensely, with such powerful concentration, as a little kid: the tip of Karkat's tongue is just visible at the corner of his mouth as he works on the current masterpiece.
You kneel down. "Hey, Karkles, what're you drawing?"
"Mmh," he says, clearly too busy for the likes of you. It's...ok, you recognize yourself, two black circles for your shades and a shock of pale yellow hair, and that's Bro next to you with the jaggedy triangle shades and the orange shirt--then someone who's just about the same size as the pair of you but scribbled in red and grey. Karkat's given himself slightly more horn than is strictly his by right, but hey. On your other side, a spiky whirlwind of red, blue, and yellow indicates Sollux, who's also larger than life. You're all holding crayon-scribble hands.
Other figures are dancing round the edge of the paper, much tinier, less complex. A bigger stick figure for Zahhak, with his long black ponytail, a green one for Jake with a pirate's hook for a hand and a lighter green one with flyaway clouds of hair for Jade. Feferi is immediately recognizable: he's drawn her in pink, but he's also drawn her in round swirls instead of spiky scribbles. You grin. "That's some nice work there, man."
"Us," says Karkat, drawing a big U-shaped smile on his crayon doppelganger's face and then lining it with fangs. "Karkat an Dave an Bro an Tholluckth."
"Yup. And those guys are Dr. Z and his posse." You notice he's mastered the R in "Bro." Dammit. That had been hilarious.
"Doctor Zee have a possie?"
"You know it, little dude. This is great. Can I put it on the fridge?"
Karkat beams; you ruffle his hair. "You gotta sign it first, though. Write your name. Here, look, I'll show you."
You hadn't actually intended to start really teaching him to read and write, but he gets K A R K A T down so quickly that you think maybe D A V E and D I R K aren't too much extra work. You're so focused on him that you don't even notice when Sol stops coloring to knee-walk over to you guys and watch.
"Write Tholluckth," Karkat says. You look up.
"Oh, hey, Sol. He's doing pretty good, huh?"
Sollux shifts round so he can look over Karkat's shoulder. "Yeth," he says, and there's no attitude in it at all. "Thith ith the firtht time you tried, Karkat?"
"First time," Karkat agrees. "Write Tholluckth, Dave."
You pick up the yellow crayon, but Sollux holds out his hand. "Let me?" He takes it--you don't protest--and leans down over the paper. "Look, it goeth like thith..."
You think you are gonna have to find an ironic nickname for these weird little attacks of breathless feeling. Vapors, maybe. Havin' the vapors. Goddamn. You are totally having the vapors as you sit back on your heels and watch Sollux take over teaching Karkat how to write, at least until you happen to glance over and discover that Sol has spent the previous half hour working on a full-color depiction of himself as Captain Jack Sparrow (you know because of the black rims round the red-and-blue eyes) chasing Cronus Ampora with a sword made out of psionic energy. And then, just cause why the hell not, he's added in what looks like an airplane dropping bombs with >:( faces on them.
Seven p.m. rolls around and finds you pounding your third Red Bull as you listen to the last song before your set. You're here until close; you're going to need the caffeine. At least Rise is packed tonight, the place is jumping, there's enough enthusiasm and energy in this audience to keep you going. It's a lot harder to keep your momentum when you don't have a hundred-some people all writhing in unison to the beats you're laying down.
Someone taps you on the shoulder. You turn: it's Marco, the club's owner. "Hey, kid. We aren't gonna have any more trouble like your last performance, right?"
"Your, uh, pet."
"What pet?" You sound like a parrot. A horrible suspicion starts to dawn on you. "What, Ampora?"
Marco nods. "I can't have pets in here, Strider, specially if they're gonna make a problem for the guests. We had some complaints. I let it slide once cause I like you, you're pretty good with those tables for a kid your age, but anything like that happens again and you're out."
"Did he say he was with me?"
"Why d'you think Rudy let him in the door? --You're up, slugger."
You are going to murder him.
By nine p.m. you have a poisonous headache and five hours left to go. In one of the breaks between sets you beg some aspirin off the bartender, who gives you a brief concerned look before going back to setting up a round of Screaming Orgasms. "You okay, Dave?"
"I'm cool." You don't have a lot of choice in the matter, chewing up the pills; they work faster that way but oh goddamn they are bitter as fuck. "Thanks."
"Whose phone is that?" one of the Screaming Orgasm aficionados asks her friends, all of whom have had at least three already and are obviously looking forward to their fourth. You realize, belatedly, that it's yours--you must have left it on ring instead of vibrate--and scuttle back to your table, pulling it from your pocket.
It's the clinic's number. Shit. You pick up. "What's going on?"
"Dave? Is that you?" Jade sounds a little taken aback.
"I'm at work, Jade, what's happening? Is something wrong?"
"No! No, everything's fine, we just--"
Just what, called you in the middle of a double fucking set which...you need to get back to in what is now less than four minutes...to say hi? "Listen, I can't talk right now, okay, I'm kind of in the middle of something, I'll call you back when I'm d...no, that's gonna be at like two a.m....fuck, just tell Bro whatever it is, he'll deal with it."
"Talk to you later." You cut her off and hang up. Goddamn, seeing that number had really gotten to you. Your heart is still hammering; you can feel your pulse thwacking and thudding in your head, to which the aspirin don't seem to be doing a goddamn thing. You turn the phone to vibrate and put it in your jacket pocket, and you get back to doing your job. You feel it go off once, a text message, but you'll check that later. Right now there's just the beats.
Rudy calls you a cab. Not because you're drunk--damn, you'd like to be--but because it's freezing out, you have to carry heavy shit, and you are so tired you are tripping over your own feet. Walking home right now doesn't sound like a fun idea. The headache has receded a little, but you are not even in the same neighborhood as your best by the time you finally get to shut down and pack up.
"You gonna be okay, kid?" he asks as he helps you with your stuff. "You look kinda wrecked."
"I'm cool," you say again. He shrugs, shuts the door, slaps on the cab roof.
Sitting back in the cold pleather taxi seat, you feel your phone digging into your ribs, and fish it out to see what the fuck it was they were so interested in telling you.
It's not a text exactly. It's a picture message, from Jade, obviously taken with her phone. Some of the more alarming equipment has been removed from Cronus's room at the clinic. The oxygen mask is gone, replaced with a nasal cannula. He's sitting up in bed with what looks like a light protective dressing over his gills. He looks better. He looks incredulous.
In his blanket-covered lap, showing off a handful of crayon-covered sheets of paper, is Karkat; and on the other side of the bed, grinning cheerfully, is Jake Harley, with a hand on Sollux's shoulder. Feferi Peixes is standing in the doorway.
You are going to murder Jake as well as Ampora. You are going to murder them both, first thing in the morning. You're about to put the phone away again when it buzzes.
TT: Hey, kid.
TT: You okay?
Why the hell do people keep asking you that.
TG: im cool
TG: im on my way back
TG: the fuck are you doing still awake
TT: Eh, screwin' around on the internet.
Wow, you think...you're actually starting to be able to tell when he's bullshitting you.
TG: yeah right
TG: what gives bro
TT: Just, you had a hell of a long work night is all. I'm allowed to fret touchingly over my kid brother, it's in the rules.
TG: you dont fret good
TG: its like
TG: me trying interpretive dance
TG: quit while youre ahead man
TT: Okay, sympathy diminishing by the second.
TG: hey you want to do me a big fat favor
TG: come down here and help me with this shit i just arrived
TG: also you can pay the cab driver
TG: i dont have any cash on me
TT: You took a cab?
TT: Never mind. I'll be down in a sec.
He does, in fact, help you with your stuff, without asking any more annoying questions ("are you okay?" "I'm cool") or actually saying anything at all, until you're back in the apartment and stacking your cases by the door. "Dave."
"Jade called me earlier."
"From the clinic. She said Jake had brought the kids over there 'because they really wanted to go' and he thought it would be nice for them to see Ampora."
"Gonna kill him," you tell the floor. Bro puts a hand on your shoulder, steers you to the couch, goes away. Comes back.
Puts something in your hands. A mug. Hot chocolate, with little marshmallows in. You blink, look up at him. "I already yelled at him, but hey, dude, wouldn't dream of takin' away your opportunity to shout. But it turned out okay, apparently it cheered Mister Purple right the fuck up. Jade sent me a picture."
"Me too." You sip: hot, piercingly sweet, ridiculously heartening. You realize you haven't eaten since midafternoon and you are feeling almost sick from hunger. "She called me at work, from the clinic. I freaked out when I saw the number, I thought--"
He nods. You don't have to explain what you thought. "Yeah, not her brightest moment. She said she'd just been so pleased to see him not being a miserable lump that she wanted to tell you right away. Was pretty anxious about it when she talked to me. Said you sounded all kinds of stressed and angry."
"Bullshit, I did not sound angry." You're beginning to warm up, slowly. It feels so damn good just to sit down and not have to listen to anything particularly noisy. "I sounded mildly perturbed. Check the phone records."
"I believe you," Bro says, holding up his hands. "Just...they know you've been doin' a lot on not much sleep lately, and she didn't mean to make shit more difficult."
"Heh. You wanna know what makes shit more difficult? Ampora lied to the bouncer to get into Rise. Said I was his owner. Marco gave me a little motivational pep talk before I went on, all about how he couldn't be having with this kind of disturbance and he let it slide once but next time I'd be looking for somewhere else to hang my cans."
"Wow. Well, fuck Marco and fuck Ampora and his total lack of awareness of consequences, at least he's out of our hair for the moment." He looks at you over the shades. "Drink up, kid. Want a grilled cheese?"
You want a grilled cheese more than anything on earth. Bro makes them--used to make them--with just a tiny bit of mustard and pepper, and that always lifted his grilled cheeses to a level of fuck-awesome nobody else could match, not even a restaurant. He gives you a brief, narrow grin, and goes away again.
He doesn't just give up the precious plate without a little obnoxious punch-and-shove scrimmage, though. You've hauled your carcass to the kitchen table and he's trying to fake you out with shitty feints. That's...god, that's home, that's Bro, that's...yeah. Nothing's free. You manage a solid hit on his shoulder and he raises his hands in defeat. "All yours. Eat up before it gets cold and gross, kiddo."
"Fuck you," you say, but it comes out more like "Fmmph mmph," because your mouth is full.
It's three a.m. by the time you finally get to bed, but you have long since quit caring about little things like what time it is, or which way is up; you have never been so tired in your life. You don't argue when he helps you out of your club outfit, somehow not waking Karkat, or when he deposits you on your bed and pulls the covers up. "G'night, kid."
"Mmh. Bro." It's really tough to form words.
There was probably gonna be more to that, but you're sinking away from consciousness like a stone into water, and you just smile and let yourself go.
It's snowing in a desultory sort of way when you pull into the clinic's little parking lot and turn off Bro's Buick. The sky's the color of lead, and the flakes aren't disappearing completely when they hit the asphalt, just fading into translucent slush that you know damn well is gonna be annoying to drive back in, so you're not staying long. You've lived this long in the mortal city without piling the car into anything in winter storms, but that doesn't mean you're gonna quit being careful. For a kid who grew up driving in Texas this kind of shit is not second nature.
And the Buick isn't good in snow. And there is a car seat in the back, which, fuck, you're gonna need to adjust the seatbelt holder thingy again soon, Karkles is growing like a weed.
You realize you've spent five minutes sitting there staring out the windscreen and tapping your fingers on the wheel, and pull the keys out of the ignition with a curse. It's late afternoon; you'd left the kids with Bro, freshly home from work and actually planning to do something like make real food for once. You've both started looking shit up like "Cheap Food That Can Be Made Ahead And Frozen" and come to terms with the fact that your future contains the lentil.
The snow sticks to your shades and smooches the back of your neck with gross cold little wet touches. You flip up the collar of your jacket and hurry across the parking lot, aware as you get in that your sneakers are not technically what you might call waterproof anymore--ugh, fuck, gross wet feet, just what you need--and have to take the shades off when you get inside because they steam up instantly.
Some dude is arguing with Jade at the front desk about his dog, a little fluffy thing that looks like a shower poof with eyeballs. She gives you a sympathetic nod as you go past. "--Hey, how come he just gets to go right back and I had to wait for twenty minutes?" the guy is demanding. You refrain from flipping him the bird, but it's tough.
Dr. Z is with a patient. You lean against the wall outside the exam room with your arms folded; after a moment Jade comes hurrying back and finds you. "Dave! Are you okay? You sounded kind of...mad, on the phone last night. I'm sorry for bugging you at work."
"It's cool." You rub your shades with the hem of your shirt, succeeding only in smearing the lenses rather than cleaning off the snow and fog. "Just was busy is all."
"I understand. It was kind of amazing, though, like a breakthrough with him, when Jake brought the kids over--I know he shouldn't have done that without asking you or Dirk first, of course--"
"It's fine," you say, overriding her. "I already talked to Jake." You talked to him on the phone for about fifteen minutes, earlier today, out of earshot of the kids, and you feel pretty confident he has a clearer understanding of what is and is not cool going forward. You are not sure when the fuck you started feeling like you were forty years old, but you kind of wish it wasn't the case. "Anyway. Ampora's doing better?"
"Yeah, he's really...he was asking when he was going to get out of here, and he's not like remotely close to being well enough for that yet, but he seems to be in better spirits." Jade tucks hair behind her ear and looks at you earnestly with eyes the same color as Jake's, maybe slightly brighter green. "Dave, are you really okay?"
"Yep." You have another go with the shades and put them on, smears or no smears, and as always when that barrier goes up between your face and the world you feel so much more at ease. "How long's Dr. Z gonna be, you think?"
"Not long. He's finishing up right now. Did...did you want to see Cronus?"
"Yeah, I brought him something. He awake?"
"Let me check."
Of course he's awake, it would've been way too convenient for you to just be able to put the thing you're carrying on his bedside table and abscond. Fuck. You sigh, take a deep breath, push past Jade into the room.
He looks at you with huge purple eyes and an expression you can't totally parse. The mask is still gone, he just has the little clear tube of the nasal cannula draped over his face, and it looks like the monitors have left the building, but he's still one sick-looking troll, pallid grey-violet and tucked up in bed with a scarf that has to be Feferi's wrapped round his throat. Hot pink is very much not his color.
"Sup," you say. "Brought you something."
"Are you angry?"
"Nah." You walk closer, fish the card out of your jacket pocket, hand it over. "From the kids. Well, from Karkat, but Sol kind of had to help out on the lettering, so I think you're gonna get some mixed messages there."
He looks searchingly at your face for a moment longer before reaching out to take the card. It's in crayon, of course, a piece of xerox paper folded in half just like Sollux's had been, only this time the lettering is mostly in Karkat's favored bright red. It says YOU HAVE TO GET WEL VREY VREY VREY SOON, followed by a drawing of what you think is probably Karkat and Cronus, or possibly a tomato and an eggplant, and KARKAT in big straggly letters.
(Underneath that, in yellow, blue, and red: II HELPED HIIM RIITE THIIS AND NO DONT YOU SUCK, plus a frowny face. There are some wrinkles in the paper indicative of a brief struggle.)
Cronus stares at it. You pat him on the shoulder, briskly. "Listen, Ampora. In future, how about you don't commit acts of perjury regarding your legal status to people I have to work with, it makes shit so much easier for everybody."
"W-what?" he manages. His eyes are brimming. You have to get out of there.
"Don't lie to bouncers," you clarify. "As a general policy. And don't lie about whether you belong to somebody. Shit's not cool. Not sure why I gotta tell you that, but it's not cool. Okay? Right."
Jade pokes her head in. "Dave? Dr. Zahhak is free."
"Good." You hurry out of there without continuing the conversation, brushing past her despite her sharply indrawn breath. You're not interested in discussing anything right now except money.
"I can forward you the email," Zahhak says. "I expect if Fe...Feferi were here she'd want to tell you herself, but she's off duty." You know he was going to correct himself to Ms. Peixes and stopped instead. That's progress. "She's been pulling some very long shifts just lately. So have you."
"Yeah, well," you say and rub at the back of your head. "Seriously all of it?"
"Seriously all of it." He sits down at his desk, turns the monitor so you can read. "Feferi talked to her for quite a long time on the phone last night, and this came in just a little while ago."
It's in...yeah, okay, it's in fuchsia. What the hell is it with people you know and text colors?
Dear Doctor Zahhak, his practice, and to whomever it may concern:
Firstly, I would like to extend my gratitude to you and your friends and staff for what you are doing and have done for the Trolls in your care. What an amazing gift you have! It warms my heart so much to think there are so many out there aligned with our cause. I understand that Cronus Ampora has taken up a great deal of your time recently, and that you have also been instrumental in the rescue and treatment of two other young Trolls.
It would be absolutely remiss of me to ignore the substantial financial sacrifice they are sure to have caused you, and I am fortunate to be in a position where I can extend an offer to cover all outstanding medical costs for these Trolls. After all of the terrible happenings from last year, to say that they have been on my mind is an awful understatement! It is my duty to right the wrongs of the family company and improve the social position and status of Trolls in general, and while I am somewhat embarrassed to say that it has taken me this long to get around to doing anything about it… the work you have been doing has served as an inspiration to me! My Eridan, Cronus' hatchmate, is very dear to me, and very eager to see his brother, as am I! There are lots of people here who would love to see him.
If it is possible for you, and of course for the others in your organization--I speak here of the Strider brothers, whom I should like to meet! Jade and Jake Harley, and of course my sister(!!) (she surrounded that bit with hearts) I propose that we all meet up to discuss how best to combine our efforts and move forward for everyone in this new day and age we build together! I would be happy to cover your travel and accommodations, of course! Let me know soon when arrangements can be made!
In the meantime, please bill all costs for the medical treatment of Cronus, Karkat, and Sollux to me at the attached address. Let me know soon, I can't wait to meet you all.
C. Feferi Peixes!!
(she actually used exclamation points.)
Betty Crocker Corp.
Try our Shake n' Bake!
"All of it," you say again, strengthlessly. That has to add up to...god, you don't even know how damn much this lady just agreed to pay. "Jesus fuck."
"I wouldn't have put it in quite those terms, but yes," Zahhak says, mildly. "I intend to write back to say yes, thank you, that would be very kind, but what do you think about this idea of meeting up?"
"Make it somewhere not snowy, is what I think about it." You lean on the edge of his desk, slightly unsteady. The idea of not being however much in the goddamn hole for Sol and Karkat and Cronus is still sinking in. Zahhak steadies you with one vast hand. You think again of how gentle he'd been with Karkat, back when you'd first brought him in. How he'd soothed your troll's fear and pain, how he'd just fucking dealt with everything without asking first how you were gonna afford this shit. You look up at him, and swallow.
"Easy, Dave," he says. "You've been under a lot of stress."
"Yeah." You laugh a little, not really meaning to, but it doesn't have that jagged unpleasant edge. "Yeah. Uh. Guess we all have."
"Will you tell him?"
You rub at your face, taking off the shades. Everything's very bright and not quite steady. "Uh. Me?"
"You," he says.
"Because I think he would be easier if you told him. He's very taken with you."
You stare up at him. "What does that mean?"
"He looks up to you."
"He keeps coming on to me is what he does."
"I believe that's what we in the business call an ingrained response," Zahhak says, not ungently. "I don't think he's really had any experience of people paying attention to him other than to perform experiments or tell him to fuck off--" you blink, not expecting that word to come out of that mouth--"and he is desperate for attention; he's only ever had one method of getting it. I doubt he actually wants to go to bed with you, if that's what you're concerned about."
You blurt a startled laugh. "He's a goddamn kid. Also a twerp. I don't swing that way."
Zahhak smiles. "Go and talk to him, Dave."
Jade gives you what is for Jade a surprisingly dirty look when you come out of the office. You blink behind the shades, but she says nothing, and you figure you can ask her what her deal is later on--probably she's pretty tired too, all of you have been running on very little sleep for days now. Then you're back in Cronus's room and you have to stop and stare.
He's curled up in a little knot on his side with his back to the door, looking very small. "--Hey," you say, "Cronus. You okay?"
Snrfle. He uncurls enough to look over his shoulder at you and you can see he's been crying. Ah, fuck. "What? What is it? What's wrong?"
Karkat's card--which, okay, yeah, you do have to admit that is profoundly, sickeningly touching--stands open on the table, next to Sollux's, and a bunch of crayon drawings the kids must have brought over last night. You come over and sit on the edge of his bed and rest the back of your hand against his forehead. He's too warm, but not what you'd think of as worryingly hot. "You feeling bad? Should I get Dr. Z?"
He closes his eyes, the lashes stuck together in great purple-black clumps that make you think of old Cher music videos, and turns his face against your hand exactly the way Karkat does when he wants horn-rubs. "No," he says.
"Okay, then, what the hell's all the woe about?"
Cronus sort of snorts and laughs at the same time, an unlovely little sound. "Y-you're kinda dense, even for a human, ain't you?"
"Watch it, kid, you're in no position to be insulting people," you say, without venom, and wipe tears away with your thumb. They're bizarre. They look like diluted Welch's and they stain the fuck out of pillowcases, judging by the evidence.
"Do you even know w-what it means to me. This." He waves a hand, limply, indicating the stuff on the bedside table. "Havin the kids come over here an show me their drawins. Like they actually want to see me? I don't...fuck, Strider, that ain't somethin what happens to people like me. Harley brought em over an Jade was all so happy an let Karkat borrow Zahhak's markers--" now you know where he got the sharpie all over his little grey fingers from, thank you Jade-- "an we kinda just...colored for a while, like, like it was okay, do you get what I'm sayin, like they actually fuckin wanted to be here, even Sollux, fuck, that kid is obviously doin research on missile identification, he was drawin a goddamn ICBM with II HATE CRONUS on it, shit was impressive..."
You think he would probably have gone on in this vein for some time longer if it weren't for a coughing fit. It's bad--not bad enough for you to yell for help, but bad enough so you have to get an arm round him and help him sit up, tell him to try breathing through his nose. When it lets go he sniffles and wipes at his face and looks up at you with those improbable eyes.
Little nod. You adjust matters slightly so that he isn't poking you in the throat with the sharp bend of one of his horns, and just hold him. "...Dave?"
"You're not mad at Jade and Jake, are you?"
"No. Well, I was pissed off at Jake, cause taking the kids on field trips without telling me or Bro first is kind of a gigantic what the fuck, but I yelled at him already, we're cool. I could've done without Jade giving me a goddamn heart attack by calling me from the clinic while I was at work."
You look down at him. The absurd pink scarf makes him look even paler. You can see through the fine membranes of his earfins. "Well, what the hell was I supposed to think, it was like nine p.m. and I was in the middle of a double gig and I get a call from the clinic where a friend of mine happens to be in pretty serious condition. I thought something'd gone wrong."
Cronus stares. "A friend? Wait, you were w-worried?"
"Yes, doofus. God, you got some nerve calling other people dense." You sigh. "Anyway, yeah, so I was a little ticked, but glad it wasn't an emergency."
"But you were mad at me. When you came in."
"Not mad. Just...like...don't do shit like that, okay?"
"Shit like what?"
"Like lying to the goddamn bouncer and saying you're my pet, that's what."
"Oh," he says. "Um."
"That was, um." He hunches his shoulders. "Before you talked to me? Like really talked to me? I didn't....know you then."
"So what, one half-assed straighten-up-fly-right lecture actually sank in?"
He doesn't say anything, just pressing his face against your shoulder, and you feel levity drain away from you. Fuck, it did sink in, didn't it. He actually internalized whatever it was you'd said to him last time?
What had you said to him, anyway? Don't be sorry, just be better? Take some goddamn personal responsibility?
"I'm sorry," he says, and it isn't really a whine. Not completely a whine. "I wouldn't a done that now. I just. It was dumb."
"Sure was. But hey, guess what, Cronus, you get a gold star for recognizing that. Okay? That's good. That's good. Proud of you."
He prods you in the jaw with a horn, craning his neck to look up at you, and the desperate vulnerability in those eyes is enough to make your stomach turn. He's expecting you to laugh. To take that back. "I mean it, okay? That's progress." You try and find your poker-face and realize it's temporarily vacated the premises.
"Shh." His horns are subtly different from Karkat's and Sollux's: they're smoother, cooler, less velvety to the touch. It's probably another seatroll thing. They seem to work the same, though; when you start rubbing the base of one he shivers all over and you can feel him relax, feel his breathing change, easing, slowing down. "You're a mess, Cronus Ampora, but you're not hopeless, okay? People care about you, and not just in terms of hoping you'll go away. I mean, probably there's some aspect of that, but that goes for everybody." He's making a weird low rattly noise now, and you pause for a moment, listening, wondering if it's something you ought to tell the doctor about, and then you realize it's a rusty clanky poorly-regulated kind of purr.
Fuck. There goes your objectivity. You go on rubbing a little longer, letting it lighten into petting, and take your hand away, remembering the real reason you even came in here in the first place. "Oh, yeah. Good news."
"Mmmmm?" He's almost asleep. Maybe you should just let him rest, tell him later. "Whassit?"
"You don't have to worry about medical bills. All that shit's being covered."
He blinks against your shoulder. "Mmh. I'm. 'M gonna pay you back somehow."
"Not by me. Peixes Prime basically wrote Dr. Z a blank check. No crippling debt for us after all, pretty sweet, huh?"
He wriggles, waking the rest of the way back up. "What?"
"Fef's sister. The one who knows your not-cousin. Betty Crocker. Offered to pay for you as well as Karkat and Sollux. We're saying yes, by the way. And she wants to meet us. Says Eridan would like to see you."
Cronus is staring at you so hard you think his eyeballs may pop out. "Any of this gettin' through?" you inquire. "Deus ex Crockercorp swoops in at the key moment to bail everybody out of a big fat financial clusterfuck, offers to subsidize troll welfare society summit? Earth to Cronus?"
"Eridan wants to see me?" he breathes.
"So she says."
His eyes get even wider.
"Oh my God," he coughs, "Oh my God, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, shit, fuck, I look fuckin shameful, I gotta get some decent clothes, Dave, you gotta take me shoppin, oh no my roots, I gotta get my fuckin roots done!"
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"You should get a fucking medal for this, you know." Your voice is solemn, devoid of mirth. "A great big medal with I PUT UP WITH A LOT MORE THAN YOU SHITS WILL EVER COMPREHEND on it. In real teeny letters."
Bro is flopped on the couch with his head tipped back and a beer resting in his crotch, eyes shut, hands limp. "Quit talkin' and go get me a goddamn aspirin, kid, my head feels like someone real small is sitting on it and hitting me between the eyes with a hammer."
"I bet it does. I absolutely bet. Jesus Christ, Bro."
"Jesus Christ is right. Aspirin. Now."
You go. Sollux and Karkat are coloring in Sol's room; you poke your head in to check on them. "You guys cool?"
"Coo," Karkat says, not looking up. He's drawing something you can't parse from your angle. Sol is laboriously printing goldenrod invective down the side of what looks like a SCUD missile. Oh-kay.
"Great, stay that way, and don't, like, start yelling and running around, guys. Let's keep it quiet." Sol looks up and nods, and you grin at him before continuing on your mission of mercy.
Bro takes the bottle and shakes out three pills into his hand, chewing them up the way you do--it's one of the bad habits you probably learned from him--and then swigs beer. "Jesus Christ. I've done a lot of shit that wasn't what you'd call fun or enjoyable, but I am never, fuckin' never, taking Cronus Ampora shopping again. Ever. Under any circumstances."
"No shit. Thank you, dude, that was above and beyond the call of duty." You settle on the carpet at his feet, cross-legged, looking up at your big brother with what is very nearly awe. "How did you not push him into the mall fountain?"
"Willpower, kid." Bro drains half the beer in a couple of huge gulps. "Straight-up goddamn willpower. I took him round the stores, didn't kill him, delivered him to Peixes with his bags and boxes and shit and got out of there before I could lose my patience entirely. The worst thing, you know, the worst thing was every time I got to the point where I really was gonna snap and shake him and yell, he did that fucking droopy thing with his ears and I couldn't...quite...let myself. I think Peixes put him down for a nap, he was gettin' tired as hell and coughing pretty bad by the time we got done finding his hilarious shoes and sunglasses, but he still managed to prattle all the fucking way back from the mall."
"You gotta tell me the whole story," you say. "Specially the hair. How'd that go?"
Bro groans, swallows the rest of the beer, holds out the empty bottle without bothering to open his eyes. You take it, go and fetch him another: he's more than earned a little fetch-and-carry. Thus fortified he sits up a little and rubs at his eyes under the shades.
"So Peixes Prime, Betty Crocker, whatever you want to call her, sent Ampora one of those prepaid credit card things. Which reminds me, there's a package for Sol on top of the fridge, I forgot to give it to him, we gotta do that tonight. --I go pick up Ampora at Peixes' place, he looks practically sick with excitement, I'm thinkin' he's gonna decorate my car a second time, but he just starts talking and will not shut the fuck up."
You contrast that with the miserable lump in the clinic bed. He'd been discharged by Zahhak several days ago, released into the custody of Feferi, who promised to make sure he rested and took his medicine on time and didn't do anything incredibly fucking stupid, and the vet has now pronounced him well enough to be out and about a bit. You've been busy as hell arranging travel shit with Peixes Prime's people, and every time anyone says "don't worry, it's taken care of" you find yourself wanting to ask how the fuck you're supposed to not worry about shit, that is like what you do, it's your thing. You haven't seen Ampora since you brought him Karkat's card. It's....good, to know he's being chatty and obnoxious instead of unresponsive, depressed, and obnoxious.
"I don't know half of what he's talking about," Bro goes on. "Fashion shit, I guess. We get to the mall and he insists on getting his hair did first thing. I'm kinda gritting my teeth at this point for obvious reasons." You sympathize. "And I can see that, you know, he's scared as fuck underneath all the talking. The hair people are starin' at him and he's sort of staring back and I'm like 'how much you guys charge for touchin' up somebody's roots' and that seems to break the spell or whatever, they whip one of those cape thingies round his neck, plonk him in a seat, start fucking around with his hair. God, that dye shit smells awful."
He half-smiles. "Ampora straight-up loved it, he was looking around like it was Disneyland. Apparently it took three people in black aprons half an hour to do the job, and they all kinda cooed over the purple and were like 'why do you want to cover it up it's so pretty' and you could tell, really tell, nobody ever told him that in his whole goddamn life."
Your chest hurts. "Yeah, I can believe it. He tell them the whole bit about the mutation making him unsellable?"
"No, that was the weird thing, he didn't go all let's educate the stupid humans about it. And he only hit on the hair people like four times. Each."
"Admirable restraint," you say.
"I think they thought it was cute, in a d'aww look at the kid kind of way." Bro finally lifts his head to look at you, and you think maybe some of that exasperated fondness he felt for your own teenanigans is in his eyes now. "So they finally get done, and instead of just the purple roots being gone, they put this real subtle kind of paler streaky bit in the very front. It's pretty good, actually. He could not stop staring at himself in any reflective surface the rest of the whole trip. Even those trash cans with the rounded metal top that look like R2, he was all wide-eyed and engrossed at his reflection on those as well."
"Okay, that's cute. That is cute. I will admit that much."
"Yeah, hard not to. Unfortunately he quit being cute and started being insufferable just about the second we got into the clothing stores."
You go and get yourself a beer.
Bro outlines, with a couple of pointed examples, the rest of his afternoon. Ampora had reasserted his hipster douche persona the moment they got in range of a pair of skinny jeans and a casually overpriced Egyptian-cotton V-neck. "This is all kinda low quality," he'd declared to a fuming Bro, running his claws over the sleeve of a fitted blazer. "Like, look at these seams here, hello, are you serious? Ooh, look over there, look at their scarves." And then he'd have a coughing fit.
You facepalm. "He did that in every store?"
"Not every store. When we hit up that expensive place with handbags and belts and shoes he was all like 'now this is more like it, these people understand what real style is an' how half a this shit is wasted on the people who buy it an' wear it with the wrong clothes' real loud, right in front of like three other customers." Bro sighs. "We finally got him what he needed, not including this leather coat that cost like six hundred bucks that he practically drooled over. There's a lot of purple involved. Guy likes his purple. --By the time we were done he was kinda running out of obnoxious, you know, drooping the way kids do when they don't wanna admit they're tired. He was going hoarse, too, that's a lotta talking complete bullshit for a troll who hasn't been holding long conversations with anyone except, well, you. Didn't stop him from talking though, he just went right on about how everything was ruined once it went mainstream and how boring fashion can be and how he has his own aesthetic that's unique and like nobody else's. I kind of zoned out after a while."
"Ugh." You can picture this. Ampora, pale grey-violet, surrounded by people in a bright noisy complex environment after a hell of a lot more excitement than he was used to, his throat sore from coughing and making himself as verbally objectionable as possible; Ampora in a car alone with someone he's been annoying and embarrassing for the past several hours. Ampora coming down off his attention high. "Yeah. I bet. He's probably gonna crash and have another vwoe i am terrible vwhy did i say all that shit evwerybody hates me wallow all over Peixes. What happened to the credit card thing?"
Bro twists to pull it out of his jeans pocket. "Ta-da. I got no idea how much is left on it."
"Gimme." You tweeze it from his fingers, quick enough to make him blink and then smile a little. "What do you want for dinner? I'ma call up wherever you like and order, I think you've more than earned it, dude."
What Monsieur wants turns out to be Indian, and so in a little while you're all settled round the kitchen table, plowing your way through vast mounds of chicken tikka masala, biryani, big fat golden samosas, various sorts of curry, and naan. Watching Karkat meditating upon how best to consume a samosa is the kind of thing that makes you understand why people constantly spam Facebook with pictures of their kids. He is deeply intent on this weird crispy not-quite-pyramidal thing, an expression of concentration on his face.
Sollux looks across the table. "Hey, Karkat. Lemme help?"
Karkat blinks at him, and then beams and nodnodnods. At once, Sollux's horns crackle and a very thin line of blue-scarlet light neatly slices the samosa into two halves, both of which topple slowly away from each other, revealing the spiced potato filling. Karkat applauds, bouncing up and down in his booster seat, and Sol grins a sunny grin.
You don't remember seeing him doing that before. Nor have you seen him demonstrate that kind of precision control; you're impressed as all hell. You wonder exactly what he can do with those powers. "Nice slice, little dude," Bro says. "Next time we get a watermelon you're in charge."
This seems to please Sollux, who puffs up with narrow-chested pride and proceeds to entertain the table by making a naan do a slow elegant barrel-roll in midair. Karkat, who has now got samosa all over his face, claps happily. "Thollux magic," he says.
"It'th not magic, it'th thiionicth," Sollux tells him proudly. Karkat considers this.
Sol seems to accept the compromise, and you turn your attention back to the food, which is really pretty awesome if you stop and think about it.
After dinner, de-samosified and toothbrushed and in his PJs, Karkat clings on to you when you try to put him in his pile. "Dave. You hafta look at my drawings."
"I do?" you ask.
"Yes." Little very determined glower. You think that if he were a couple years older that might actually be slightly intimidating, which is weird to think about.
"You hafta." He wriggles out of the pile and tugs at your hand, and you...follow him, okay, fine, sure, yeah, you follow him, because wow, you've never seen him this intent on anything other than watching pirates or shoveling Cheerios into his face. He shows you a crumpled piece of paper with crayon scrawled on it.
"What am I looking at, kid?" you ask, but you think you know. There's you, white-and-red shirt, black blobs for your shades. There's Karkat, every bit as big as you, a red scribbled blob with black hair and little orange horns. And there's a sort of thin scrawny purple-and-black thing on your other side, its horns jagged zigzags. You're all holding hands.
"Dave," Karkat says, and jabs at the paper with his finger. "Dave look. Look."
"It's...you and me and Ampora?"
"Yes," he says, as if this is incredibly obvious. "Dave fix Mister Purple."
"Dave has to do what now?"
"Fix him. He sad. Dave fix him."
"Okay, Dave will take that under advisement, okay? Nice drawing, kid. Damn good color sense." You scoop him up and carry him back to your bedroom, and you notice how his pupils flare wide in the dark, how reddish reflection flickers in their depths. You're suddenly very aware that he is not and never has been human. "Bedtime, Karkles."
"Dave has to fix him," Karkat says again, and then yawns. "Fix Mister Purple. He sad."
"Dave will consider this. Go on, kid, go to sleep." You cover him up with blankets, and he sighs a little, but it takes you a fucking long time to get that weird reddish flare out of your head.
It's time to talk to Feferi Peixes, again.
TG: bro tells me ampora had quite the day out today
TG: how you holding up
CC: Hi Dave!
CC: We're good! He was exhausted, poor thing, he's resting now.
CC: Thank Dirk again for doing that for him?
TG: so no tantrums or whining or anything
TG: i got a bet going
CC: No! He just told me Dirk had been super nice to him and the people at the hair place were too, and then went to go lie down.
TG: ok good
TG: one other thing
TG: karkat showed me his drawings
TG: he seems to think that me and him and ampora should be best buds and that I should fix Cronus because he is sad
TG: he gave me this weirdass look and i swear his eyes were reflecting light they were like huge and red
TG: im like kid hes not a carburetor
TG: or a lamp that needs a new plug
TG: broken on some fundamental levels that need like professional therapy and shit
TG: not halfassed pep talks from a dj he met like less than a month ago
TG: i aint qualified
CC: Yes, he does need professional help, but even the thought of that would be terrifying to him right now. I don't think he's ever had friends, Dave!
CC: Not real ones.
CC: My sister says his cousin really wants to see him. That is also frightening Cronus, I think, because Eridan is pretty much what Cronus might have been if he'd had a few less disadvantages. He's much younger, of course, but even so he's a strong, healthy troll with a place in the world.
TG: also his owner is loaded
TG: that probably helps
TG: ok so let me get this straight cronus is how much older than this eridan guy
CC: I'm not sure exactly, something like eight or nine years our time. The genetics are complicated and I don't know exactly how they're bred or...
TG: ok no need to go into detail
TG: like having his little cousin or whatever the fuck seeing him all wrecked and pathetic as opposed to having had a rich foster whatever figure
TG: i guess i can see the ohmigod shopping freakout now
CC: Oh, for--sorry brb
TG: ten four
TG: wow ok this is why he was all suddenly polite to you when he realized your sister's his cousin's rich adoptive whatever
TG: that makes sense
TG: of a pathetic and terrible kind but sense anyway
TG: i just cant get karkat out of my head that was so fucking weird
TG: maybe i should just get back with you later
TG: if this is a bad time
CC: Sorry about that! He's up and now he's asking me if I could please take pics of him in his new clothes.
CC: They're purple.
CC: In case you wondered.
TG: ok ill catch you later then
CC: and he wants to talk to you.
TG: about what
CC: He says "just stuff."
TG: its coming up on sols bedtime
TG: how about i get back online in like an hour and a half
TG: that ok on your end
CC: That works!
CC: And Dave? Don't worry so much about everything. Things have a way of turning out right all on their own.
TG: ill take that under advisement
Sol is sleepy, you can tell by the way he droops over the book he's reading, but he perks up when you come into the living room with a box in your hands. "Hey, kid. Time for go to bed."
"Do I have to?"
"Yup. But first, here, this is for you. Just came in the mail today from Peixes Prime." You hand him the box, which is an anonymous FedEx-stamped object, and are about to go find something to slit the tape with when he runs a line of light along the edges and the box pops open. Of course. Duh.
You have no idea what Peixes has sent him, just that you trust it not to be bad; and when Sol holds up an iPad box, eyes vast and shining, you think again: deus ex Crockercorp.
"For me?" Sol breathes. You reach into the box, find the packing slip.
"Looks that way. Here, the message on the slip says DEAR SOLLUX: I HOPE YOU FIND THIS BOTH USEFUL AND ENTERTAINING. I LOOK FORWARD TO MEETING YOU! C. FEFERI PEIXES." You peer closer. "Dang, that's one of the new ones."
Sollux opens the iPad box, carefully lifts it out with the very tips of his claws. "It'th engraved," he says, showing you the back. In tiny block letters it reads SOLLUX STRIDER.
You can't help smiling. Also in the box, along with the AC adaptor and charger cord, is one of the magnetic smartcover things. He snaps it on without any hesitation, and you can't actually keep up with Sol as he flicks through the settings, tapping rapidly with his clawtips on the screen, flicking and gesturing to make apps appear and disappear. The odd sensation of being surpassed by your pupil makes your stomach sink, for a moment, and you wonder: did Bro ever feel like this? Did you ever make Bro feel like this?
Sol, you notice, is floating. You can see all the way under his skinny crossed ankles to the carpet an inch beneath him; he's not paying any attention, engrossed in his new toy, utterly fascinated. Bright blue and red globes of light are drifting round the room like ball lightning. They smell of ozone, but they don't seem to do any damage where they bonk into the walls.
"Whoa," says Bro, in the doorway. "Helluva lightshow, Sol. What you got there?"
"My iPad!" Sol murmurs, hugging it against his scrawny chest. "All mine! From Missus Peitheth!"
"Crockercorp is generous," you say. Bro stares from you to your overjoyed foster-troll. "Has his name on it and everything. It's...yeah, actually the perfect gift."
Bro settles down beside the bit of floor over which Sollux is hovering, and abruptly the troll comes back down to earth, still clutching his treasure, but buries his face in Bro's neck. "Hey, there, little dude, it's all good," Bro says.
"I know it ith, it'th, it'th..." Sol sniffles, pushing his face harder against Bro, and Bro hugs him tighter. You watch, and after a moment knee-shuffle over to them, and Bro offers you the arm that isn't wrapped round Sollux, and you sort of just stay there, hugging them both, aware of the psionic potential in the air of the room, lightning waiting for a reason to strike. "--Thank you," Sollux murmurs at last, and raises his head enough to look at you both. "Thank you guyth."
"Pff, we didn't buy you an iPad." You ruffle his hair.
"You did everything elthe. You found Karkat, you helped him, you found me, you got my bee back. You did everything."
"We were glad to," says Bro, and you let go of him; he scoops Sollux up, iPad and all, just the way he used to carry you when you were little and dead tired. "C'mon, kiddo. Bedtime. If you're very quiet you can stay up for a little bit to play on the internet, but I'ma check on you."
Sollux nods against him. You get up, reach to stroke one of his smaller horns. "Good night, kid."
"Night," he says, already drowsing. You think probably he'll have to wait till morning to play with his new toy.
You watch Bro carry him down the hall to his room, and after a moment or two longer go back into your own darkened room, pulling out your phone. Time to talk to Mister Purple, whether you want to or not.
thanks to roachpatrol and rainbowbarnacle for betaing and insights, you guys fuckin rule.
TG: yo ampora
TG: fef says you wanted a word
He answers almost immediately. He's signed into his own account.
CA: davwe hey uh
CA: can you thank dirk again for me, that vwas pretty avwesome of him
CA: look look i got pics a my nevw things ill send em
CA: i got my hair done, davwe, did you hear?
CA: an i got some really nice shirts
TG: i can deal with the volkswagen thing under most circumstances although only the god of very annoying purple trolls knows why the fuck you insist on doing it
TG: but if you continue to stick a w in my name
TG: i will be calling you mister purple for the rest of eternity
TG: fair warning
CA: vwell fine if you put it like that
CA: i guess i can make an exception in my othervwise perfectly consistent typin quirk
CA: jeez humans are touchy.
TG: also watch it with the speciesist remarks
TG: so anyway
TG: what did you want to talk about
CA: nothing i guess.
CA: just um say thank you to dirk for me?
You are very tired of this.
TG: how about no
TG: how about instead of doing that
TG: we have an actual conversation about whatever the hell this thing is
CA: vwhat thing?
TG: it weirds me the fuck out that you can suddenly use punctuation by the way
TG: whats up with that
TG: but more to the point the thing to which i refer is whatever the deal is you have with me
TG: because there is some kind of deal
TG: and i just kind of wanna come right out and say
TG: no cronus i will not do the interspecies nasty with you
TG: oh my fucking god
TG: you have been coming on to me and everything else thats not actively decomposing since i first met you
TG: this is a verifiable fact
CA: oh my god
CA: its not like that
CA: fuck uh nevwer mind this vwas a dumb idea
TG: ampora i am so goddamn confused by everything about you
TG: ok so what is the deal
TG: if you are not craving my undeniably hot bod
CA: im pale for you okay?
CA: im so ridiculously fuckin pale it aint evwen funny
CA: an you dont reciprocate, ok, i get that.
CA: you dont evwen knowv wvhat that is do you?
CA: i fuck evwerythin up
TG: time out
TG: back up
TG: shit is this like another of the weird troll romance things
TG: oh my god i am a fucking idiot
TG: cant believe this
CA: im sorry.
CA: i didnt mean to be, it just happened.
TG: i am a world class douche arent i
TG: this is the one where you like someone a lot but you dont want to play hide the sausage right
TG: the one where you just kinda like
TG: want to do shit like hug them when they need it
TG: and also tell them to quit being an asshole all the time
TG: is that the one
CA: that...sounds like the one alright.
TG: we dont really do that one in humanville
CA: i knewv it.
CA: this is vwhy i didnt vwant to tell you.
TG: no shut up im not done
TG: we dont do that one separately
TG: is what i was going to say
TG: its like
TG: we dont have a word for it cause its just like part of a big fat continuum of feels
TG: all mixed up together
CA: vwhat are you sayin?
TG: fuck i dunno
TG: just like if wanting to help someone and offer hugs as required and occasionally shake them until their freaky-ass barracuda teeth rattle is being
TG: what did you call it
TG: guess you better call me pallid as a motherfuck
He doesn't reply.
TG: ampora you there?
Nothing. Shit, did you break him?
TG: cronus cmon
TG: say something
CA: youre not
CA: just sayin that right
CA: for a joke?
TG: no dude
TG: shit aint funny
TG: well it is on some level of sheer absurdity but eh you know what i mean
TG: not gonna lie to you about this shit youve been screwed with too much already
TG: i mean it
CA: oh my god
You stare at the little rectangular phone screen for long enough that it locks itself: he doesn't return.
Okay, you've done enough waiting around for other people to tell you shit. You unlock the phone again and dial Feferi's house.
It takes her three rings to pick up and she sounds a little distracted. "Yes?"
"Tell me he didn't explode."
"Dave!" The smile in her voice is vast, warming. "He's okay. Well, he's...he's sort of having the vapors, I guess, but they look like happy vapors?"
"Okay, well, jeez, tell him not to disappear like that, it makes people worry."
"Tell him yourself," Feferi says, that smile still perfectly audible, and a moment later he's wheezing in your ear.
"Dude, calm down," you tell him. "What did Dr. Z tell you about gettin' excited?"
"Oh my God Dave?"
"Yeah, it's me. You okay?"
"I'm wonderful," Cronus says. "You do still mean it, right? You're actually pale for me?"
"I guess that's what this is, yeah. I'm...I wanna help you, man, I care about you. Even if you're a complete mess."
"Now I'm a well-dressed mess, if that helps." His breathing's getting easier. "Can....can you come over? I know it's late an all but..."
"It is late and you've had a long day of being a nuisance in the mall and camwhoring and inserting unnecessary Vs and Ws into words. Go to bed, Cronus, okay? I'll come over in the morning."
"Awww," he says, but you can hear how tired he really is. "You sure?"
"Yup. Go on, go sleep." You're weary yourself, but it's the kind of tiredness that comes with a big weight of anxiety being lifted; it's such a stupid relief to have gotten this out in the open, to finally quit avoiding the whole concept like the plague. Karkat was right.
Karkat was right, you think, and again that weird flicker in his eyes comes back to you. Sol can make shit fly and probably explode with his brain; what is your little nubby-horned Karkles going to be able to do, when he gets just a little older? What exactly did you start, anyway, by stopping to lift him out of that soggy cardboard box?
"--promise to come over?" Cronus is asking. You return your attention to the phone.
"What does that mean?"
You laugh. "It means I promise. Good night, man. Sleep well."
"Okay," he says, as if this is a command. "Dave?"
You put the phone down slowly, wondering what exactly you have gotten yourself into, and you're almost drowsing off when something jogs your bed and a little hand pats at you. "--Karkles, what are you doing awake, kid, aw, hell, was I talking too loud?"
Head-shake. He clambers the rest of the way onto the bed and curls up against you the way he did when you first brought him home, rubbing his cheek against your T-shirt. You hug him, very aware of how little he still is, how little and how completely goddamn precious in every single way. "What's up?"
"I right," he tells your shoulder, already sounding half-asleep again.
You have to chuckle, and run your fingers through his curls. "Yeah, okay, I'll admit it. Nobody likes a gloater, kid."
"I right," he says again, and yawns hugely; that seems to be the end of the conversation.
That sense of some vast weight having finally been lifted is still there in the morning, which is amusing given the fact that you have Karkat curled up asleep on your chest. You look down at him, registering changes you haven't noticed until now: even asleep, his face is set in determined little lines, the faint spray of freckles across the bridge of his nose is darkening slightly, his mouth is losing the babyish fullness. You can sort of see the troll he's going to be.
Then he starts to drool on you and everything's back to normal. "Hey, wake up, kiddo, time for breakfast," you say, and he blinks up at you with big sleepy silver eyes. They'll be as red as yours, as red as your blood, when he's done growing.
Bro is making coffee when you and Karkat get to the kitchen, and Sollux is perched in a chair with his bee under his arm and his iPad in both hands, totally focused and intent. "Mornin'," Bro says. "We're out of Sugar Bombs."
"Aw, man. Tragic. Gonna have to share the Cheerios with you, Karkles. What's your schedule like today?"
"I dunno about Karkat, but I got a thrilling morning of working at home planned. Gotta get this project finished before we all fly off on a magic Betty Crocker carpet. Jake might come over later."
"They're okay with you doing that? Working at home?"
"Yeah, surprisingly enough, my boss turns out not to be an asshole about it. He said he's got kids himself." Bro gives you a shrug. "Why?"
"Thinking of going over to see Ampora."
"Yup. Oh, by the way, he says thank you again for squiring him round the mall and not strangling him."
Bro chuckles. "An achievement I'm proud of, yo. Yeah, sure, go watch him play dress-up, it's cool." He sets a bowl of Cheerios in front of Karkat. "--Spoon, little dude, not fingers, remember? Spoons are your friend."
Karkat giggles. "I right," he says again. Bro gives you a questioning look.
"Long story." You look across the table at Sollux, who is...eating toast no-hands, okay, that's a little unnerving to see a slice of toast float up from the plate on its own and back down again. "Sol?"
"Mm?" He taps something on the iPad, and finally looks up.
"You got any words of wisdom and encouragement for Mister Purple?" You're aware of nudging at it, the way you do with a hangnail, pushing despite your better judgment.
"Tell him he'th thtupid and hith earth are thtupid too," Sol says, distractedly, and goes right back to whatever it is he's playing. You look over at Bro, and both of you sort of sigh in relief at the same time.
When you get to Feferi's, a little after nine, she looks somewhat frazzled. "He's been up for ages," she tells you, "pacing around and fretting about his outfit and demanding to know if you're still going to come over. I had to tell him to chill out or I wasn't going to let you. Also he's borrowed my mascara."
You have to laugh. "Fuck, didn't he get his own at the mall? Possibly with purple sparkles in? I am disappoint."
Fef grins and leads you into her (heavily pink-themed) living room, where Cronus is huddled on the couch with a cup of what smells like camomile tea. He gets up so fast he almost spills it all over the carpet, practically vibrating with nervousness, and you have to stare.
He's wearing...okay, he's wearing the predictable and regrettable skinny jeans, but these are new, so dark-washed they're almost black. His shirt is violet, ever so slightly iridescent, open at the throat under a slim tailored jacket in a much darker purple. He's got one of those narrow why-bother scarves draped round his neck, a subtle silvery streak in his hair, and what looks like every ring he owns (and possibly some of Feferi's) stacked on his fingers. And his earfins are spread fuller than you've ever seen them, bright purple and sort of fluttering nervously.
"Dave," he says.
"I wasn't sure you'd come, it's real nice a you, what with the kids an everythin an you got better stuff to do an maybe this wasn't such a good idea, shit, I don't even know what I'm doin, sorry--"
His accent is more noticeable than ever, and he starts to cough and runs out of incoherent things to say, and you look at Feferi and she looks at you and you just go and put your arms around Cronus and hug him, hard. He sort of shivers all over and then clings to you, pressing his face against your shoulder and wheezing. "C'mon, dude, come sit down, just breathe."
He keeps coughing, even when you're over on the couch, small uncomfortable coughs into a loosely curled fist. Not in fits, just...sort of over and over, nervous, and his earfins are so violently violet with embarrassment you think he'll pop a goddamn blood vessel if he doesn't relax soon. "Hey," you say. "Hey. It's okay. Chill. Here."
You turn him gently so he's sitting sideways, facing away from you, and tug gently at his shoulders until he lies back against your chest, his head tucked into the hollow between your neck and shoulder. He's so tense you can feel tendons like wires under his skin. You wrap your arms round him, let one hand slip under the sharply-tailored jacket to rub his chest in steady rhythmic circles. "Breathe slow, dude, okay? Through your nose."
Your dim memories from your days as a little asthmatic kiddo come in handy, it seems: he shivers but lies back against you and almost as soon as you start working on his chest, the coughing lets him go. You don't stop. You just slide back a little until you're mostly lying on the couch, him draped against you, still holding him, and when you think he's got his breathing pretty much under control you take your hand away. He makes a little unhappy noise, but that cuts off instantly when you turn your attention to his horns, and then you can feel him relax almost completely, sagging against you. His breathing comes naturally now, without effort. "That's better," you say. "There. You're okay, man. I got you. I got you."
He lets out a long shaky breath. "You won't go away, right?"
"Naw, man. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. You just chill the fuck out, okay, you take your time. You warm enough?"
"...kinda?" It's a thin jacket, and you bet that shimmery shirt is about as warm as paper.
"Pff. Here." There's a blanket on the back of the couch, fleece with what looks like cuttlefish printed on it; you pull it down and spread it over both of you. "Nice hair, by the way. Like the streaky bit."
He twists a bit to look up at you. "You mean it?"
"Goddamnit, Cronus, I'ma make you give me a dollar every time you say that. Yeah, I mean it. I don't say shit I don't mean." You go back to petting his horns. One of them has a little purple elastic band wrapped round it. He subsides for a few minutes, eyes fluttering shut.
"Is it okay with your family? This thing?"
Your hand goes still. What is this thing, anyway? You aren't sure of anything except that you very much don't want it to stop. It's so weird, it's just as powerful as the instinct that made you stop and pick Karkat up that night; maybe it is that instinct, just laser-focused on one purple fuckup. One purple fuckup who...just asked a very interesting question.
"Shh. It doesn't matter." It does, and you know it.
"No," he says, "it does. I want it to be okay."
Slowly you go back to stroking the jagged zigzag of his right horn. "Well. Shit. As far as I know, nobody has a problem with me coming over here to fuss over you, dude. Bro didn't even eyebrow me. Karkat's being all smug, like, "I was right, I told you," and Sol...well, uh, I kinda think you're last week's news with him. He's got an iPad now that's totally distracted him from drawing pictures of nukes with your name on them."
Cronus laughs. It's a surprised little sound. "Fuck," he says, "I was kinda gettin to like the crayon hate drawin stuff. It was creative, you know?"
"Keep those safe, man, that shit will be lethally embarrassing when he's older." You smile. "I'm pretty sure Karkat's gonna keep drawing stuff, though. He's really into it."
"What did you mean he's bein smug?"
"Oh, he was the one who told me I had to come see you. He got all intent about it, showed me a picture of you and me and him all holding hands, was like 'Dave fix Mister Purple, he sad.' --Yeah, I know."
Cronus's earfins have gone bright purple again. "Aw, man."
"Yeah. Don't worry, I'm not about to tell anyone else. But it was almost spooky. He seemed to be, like, pretty authoritative, and he's still small enough that he needs to ride in a kiddie car seat. You guys...you grow up fast."
"He's a mutie, like me--well, more'n me--uh, sorry, I mean, like, genetically unique--" You can't help snickering. "--shut up, you know what I mean--he's probably gonna grow up even faster. Seatrolls are way down on the cold end a the spectrum, but he's like the brightest hottest fuckin red I ever did see, he's off the spectrum completely. I got no idea what you should expect."
"The color's related to lifespan, isn't it?" You didn't mean to ask that. You really didn't mean to ask that, it just popped out. He sighs.
"Yeah, it is. Colder means longer. But like I said, he's a mutie, all bets are pretty much off. Could be he'll live longer than a regular rustblood. He's just a kid, Dave, don't be...don't think about that kinda shit, okay? You got a good long while."
It's stupidly comforting to hear. You start to say something, then just subside. It's...it's just good, good on a really basic level, to have someone else actually talk about this with you, someone who knows what it means. You've tried so hard not to think about it, and in the process have thought about it a whole goddamn bunch: how long are troll lifespans, what does Karkat's mutation actually mean not only in terms of whatever spooky-ass relationship counseling bullshit he can pull but in terms of his own future?
"He's...I guess he's just a precocious little fuck," Cronus is saying. "But he's smart as hell. I ain't never seen a troll like him before."
"Probably never has been a troll like him," you say, and think again of the box. Cronus says nothing, but his hand, chilly with rings, closes over yours; and again you feel that wash of gratitude, yes, fuck, you really needed to have this little fragment of a talk.
You look down at his carefully combed hair, the faint silvery streak turning the rest of it darker. "I don't know where this is going, man."
"None a us do." Cronus twists to be able to look at you. Feferi's purloined mascara makes his eyelashes even more ridiculous. "But I tell you one thing, you're gonna fuckin drive it all the way. You guys are somethin special."
You can feel your own ears getting warm. "Eh. Shit needs doing, we're doing it."
"Not eh. I mean it. You're...you're gonna change things." He closes his eyes, rests his head back against your shoulder. "You already have."
You can't say anything at all for a moment. His hand squeezes yours very carefully. "--Oh," he says. "One more thing."
"Yeah?" Your voice is pretty steady.
"I do not have freaky-ass barracuda teeth, I got perfectly ordinary seatroll dentition." He sounds comfortable. "Ain't my fault you landies got mouths full a sad little nubs."
You can't help laughing, and his head bounces against your shoulder, and that makes you laugh more, and the last vestige of your weight of worry about this whole goddamn Ampora business breaks up and fades into nothing at all.
When you get back Bro and Jake are on the couch with the kids; Bro is busily typing away at whatever crap his boss has given him to do, and Jake has Sol and Karkat snuggled against him watching Simpsons reruns. You give them a nod and go through to the kitchen to get yourself a glass of apple juice, and something about the perfectly ordinary way they're all coexisting makes you smile. Bro looks up long enough to notice, and one corner of his mouth briefly quirks up before returning to its default expressionless line.
The little silent communication reminds you that there was a time when you and Bro lived pretty much alone, with few concerns except your own interests and the limited number of times you actually had to interact with the world. In the last couple of months you've...well, you've changed that. The iris has expanded, the shot is wider. Not all of that is good--you could do without the exponentially expanding number of things to worry about--but looking over at your brother and your adopted kids and your brother's friend (who happens to be a super-convenient babysitter) you think, I would never give this up, never never never.
As the day of your departure on Air Crockercorp approached, Karkat had gotten more and more rambunctious and excitable. You'd told him about the airplane you'll be riding on, and had to go hit up Google after the third repetition of "why," but he'd seemed to be okay with the idea of being in a big metal tube up in the air held up by some squiggly physics equations. Sol may possibly be less so, but on the other hand he has his new toy to distract him from potentially upsetting situations. He's found this app called Miracle Something that plays pretty sounds and shows the kind of graphics that make you think of vintage color monitor demo displays, and it seems to soothe him when he's particularly anxious.
"I ain't good with tiny spaces," Cronus had informed you, "such as, you know, cages or similar, but I think if Doc Z gives me a bunch a very hard drugs I should do okay."
"No drugs for you," you'd said automatically. "Dramamine, maybe."
"Awww. I was hopin for at least a heapin spoonful a Xanaxes. Xanax is practic'ly OTC these days, c'mon, they give that shit out like candy."
"Nope, and I'm gonna tell him you said that. I guarantee you'll get a lecture."
"That's just mean, Dave. You are bein maliciously unkind. Can I at least get the window seat if you won't let me be all pharmacologic'ly advantaged?"
"From what Peixes Prime's people told me, I think we might all get window seats. Quit pestering me, dude, I got to finish packing."
Now, as you stand on the tarmac and look at the bright red jet with its iconic white spoon down the side, you think maybe you could use a handful of Xanax yourself. Karkat has been a terror all morning and finally, finally fell asleep in the taxi on the way to the airport; you're carrying him, which sort of balances out the weight of your bag on your other shoulder. Sol, in his new clothes bought specially for the trip, clutches his iPad to his chest and stares about with enormous mismatched eyes. It's a relief when another taxi pulls up and disgorges Dr. Z, looking incredibly awkward in what appears to be an actual suit, Cronus, skinny and purple and implausible, and Feferi, who is glowing with excitement. Last to arrive are the Harleys.
"I think," says Zahhak, staring up at the plane, "that is the single gaudiest livery I have ever seen on a jet, and I've actually seen one of Trump's repaints. Let's see if they'll let us in."
Someone's already driving a set of airstairs over, and soon enough a lady with teeth that might actually be fluorescing, so white are they, ushers you and your companions into the Gulfstream G650. It is totally unlike any airplane you've ever seen, because it has what appear to be La-Z-Boy recliners instead of airplane seats, plus there's a sort of sideboard with a TV on it, a couch, flower arrangements, and windows big enough to see out of. You would not be surprised to find a jacuzzi in the back.
"All right for some, ain't it?" Cronus says, earfins wide with amazement. You move aside for Bro and Feferi and the others to get past, and set Karkat gently down in one of the beige leather seats. "There gonna be free drinks on this flight or what?" he inquires of the lady. At least he doesn't append a 'doll.'
"Refreshments are complimentary, sir," says Ms. White Teeth, baring them at Cronus in what might be taken as an unconscious threat display. He reciprocates: his aren't glowing like the Arkenstone but they are very, very pointy and also somewhat translucent when looked at up close.
He wins that one. You give White Teeth an apologetic smile-shrug of your own. "Go sit down, Ampora. No arguing with Sol over who gets to sit where."
"Yessir," says Cronus, and tips you a lazy salute. He's obviously enjoying himself to no end. Sol is staring around with those big blank eyes, and you put a hand on his shoulder.
He jumps a little. "Hey, man. Didn't mean to scare you. You okay?"
"Y-yeth. Are we really allowed to be in here?"
"We sure are. I know, it's kinda weirding me out too, I've never been on a plane that looked like a swank hotel room before." There's one of those Edible Arrangements fruit salad thingies on the sideboard by the TV. The lighting is soft and pleasant. "Where do you want to sit?"
"Anywhere," Sol says, shrugging. "Can I have my iPad with me?"
"Yup, although they're gonna ask you to turn it off for a little while when we take off." You watch as he clambers into one of the seats--near the back, the closest thing to a corner he can find--and curls up with his toy. Bro settles next to him, and you can see the unconscious relaxation in Sol, the way he hunches just a little less, with someone he knows and trusts right there.
It takes the bunch of you a little while to settle in (and Karkat objects to seatbelts; you finally get him to stop throwing a fit by sitting next to him and rubbing his horns) but eventually the doors are sealed and the engines' whine ramps up as you taxi to the runway. You haven't flown since you were really little, and you'd forgotten how straight-up weird it feels when that big flat palm of inertia presses you back against your seat and the world falls away under you smooth and fast, faster than you expect. The Gulfstream is the closest thing to quiet you can imagine a plane being, but the engines behind you obviously know what they're doing.
Glancing over your shoulder you can see that Bro has his arm around Sol, who is pressing his face tightly into Bro's shirt. Karkat, protestations forgotten, is staring out the window with a poleaxed expression. "--You okay, kid?"
"I flying," Karkat says. He's got his nose and hands squashed against the window. "Flying, Dave!"
"Yup, that's what you're doing all right," you say, ruffling his curls. When the seatbelt chime goes you unfasten his, and aren't surprised when he immediately scampers across the aisle and into Cronus's lap to stare out his window and make sure that side is flying as well. Cronus winces at the enthusiastic nature of the scramble, but doesn't object.
You look aft again. Okay, good. Sol has uncurled himself and is just leaning against Bro, who gives you a thumbs-up when he sees you're peering back at them. After another couple of minutes the Miracle Thing...Modus?...starts up its chimes.
You sleep on the plane. The hum of the engines and the ridiculous comfort of your seat, plus a beer (in a Crockercorp-branded glass, but you think it's regular old Coors), contrive to send you off into a pleasant and much deeper sleep than any you've had for a few days. You're vaguely aware of some activity nearby, but nobody shrieks for you and honestly you think there's enough responsible adults on the damn plane that someone else can handle the situation for once.
After a while you dream: that scene in the courtroom, your old friend collapsing, the little blue blur of Vriska Serket and the uproar that rises to obscure the action. It's oddly not upsetting. You know that John Egbert is doing just fine--you know, because you hesitantly googled him--and once the official talks are over you are going to find him and sit down with him and have a long, long conversation. And maybe get wasted and play Bond. And at some point you are going to hug him very fucking hard, because you saw in the videos how he looked at that little girl, and how much it must have taken out of him when she was killed. He looks like Jade, like Jake, in the videos, only he has blue eyes and seems a lot older than you know he is. He looks like his dad.
In your sleep John smiles at you. The teeth haven't been fixed, which you're oddly glad about: they're so quintessentially Egbertian. (The T in Egbertian is soft, like shh.) "Hey, Dave," he's saying, and then someone is shaking you gently, and you open your eyes and find yourself looking into Jade's face instead. "Muh?"
"Wake up, we're gonna land in like ten minutes."
"You couldn't let me sleep through that?" you complain, and she grins.
"You slept most of the way. Besides, Karkat wants you."
That wakes you up the rest of the way, and you look around. Instead of being buckled into the seat beside you, Karkat's...uh...sitting in Cronus's lap, looking kind of bedraggled, clinging to his purple shirt with little fingers. Jake and Bro have Sollux between them now, at the back of the plane, and Equius appears to be dozing; Feferi is watching you and Jade. "What...is he okay?" Fuck, what did you sleep through?
"He's fine, he just got a little overexcited. And ate most of the fruit tray. And barfed. --No, seriously, he's okay, Dave, don't worry." Her voice is a little louder, and Cronus looks up at the pair of you, his earfins perking in relief to see you awake.
"Fuck, finally, Sleepin Beauty," he says. "Thought you were gonna snore the plane to bits. There, see, kiddo, I told you, everythin is totally cool," he adds to Karkat, who blinks and then holds out his little arms across the aisle. Jade scoops him off of Cronus and plunks him in your lap instead, and he scrambles to cling to your neck and bury his face against you.
"Why didn't you guys wake me up?" you ask, rubbing Karkat's back. "Poor old Karkles, I'm sorry, that sucks. And I don't snore."
"You do too," Cronus says, looking glumly down at his wrinkled shirt.
Karkat squirms and clings tighter, his voice muffled in your shoulder. "Mister Purple said he hurls alla time."
Cronus shrugs at your raised eyebrow. "What? I do. I got him cleaned up, no big deal. I figured you maybe had enough a dealin with all our crisises for a while, Strider."
You look up at Jade, and she looks at you, and you hide a smile by nuzzling Karkat's messy hair. "Thanks, man. Appreciate it."
Out of the corner of your eye you can see the earfins rise.
C. Fef is taller than your Feferi, with a vast cloud of dark hair and a magenta suit that probably cost as much as Bro's car--but the smile is the same; the smile is kind. She meets you in person as you all clamber down the airstairs, stiff after hours of immobility. "I didn't bring an enormous welcoming party, I thought you'd be tired after the flight, I know I’d be, all the way from the East Coast. But I did want to be here to meet you! And thank you all again for coming. It’s such an honor!" Most of this is directed at Equius--and then your Feferi squeezes past and flings herself at her sister in a typically unrestrained hug. They spin in an almost neat circle, giggling at one another, two pretty mirrors. It breaks the solemnity of the mood, and introductions go well. While she has to crouch to meet them, she is grave but not patronizing when she shakes Sollux's hand, and is obviously impressed when he (prompted) shows her some of the things he's been doing with the iPad she sent; she is just as obviously charmed when Karkat shakes her finger. He's still not really at his best, and you want to get him to the hotel and locate some pink medicine and maybe read him a bunch of stories.
Cronus has been hanging back throughout the introductions, and finally you look at him sternly and nod: get it over with. He shuffles forward and extends a newly-manicured hand toward C. Fef, eyes fixed firmly on the tarmac between them. She catches her breath sharply enough that he looks up, and then takes his hand in both of hers. "Hello, Cronus. It's so good to see you!"
He mumbles something like "you too, miss."
Eventually she can’t take it and just engulfs him in a Peixes-patented hug.
"I barely recognized you! You look so--you look good. Eridan is so excited, you've no idea!"
He does that sort of hunching thing where he's trying to be less present, and you wonder just what his history here has been like. Bro catches your expression, and scoops Sollux up to balance on a hip. "We all are, Ms. Peixes. It's real good of you to do this, for all of us."
It's enough to break the moment, and she nods. "Well! Your suites at the hotel are ready, if you'll follow me?" The limos, thank God, are not in fact pink, or red with big white spoons on them: they're inoffensive black, and there are two of them. You and Karkat and Cronus and Jade climb into one, and...welp, okay, C. Fef will be riding with you, looks like. She sits down next to you and Karkat as the chauffeur closes the door, and gives you a smile that--despite your weariness and general worry--makes you feel warm all over.
She pulls out her phone, and shows you pictures of the people you'll be meeting at the big get-together in the morning. You exclaim softly over muscular Eridan Ampora, who...looks a hell of a lot like Cronus, plus a violet streak in his hair and minus the air of generally having been rolled over the waterfalls of life in a barrel; but it's not till she moves on to the next picture that you really stare. "--John?"
C. Fef grins at you. It's the same infectious grin as Feferi's and yet it's different, the shape of her mouth is subtly sharper, there are the beginnings of tiny faint smile-lines at the corners of her eyes. "A surprise," she says. "A nice one, I hope?"
"Fuck yeah," you say, and look sheepish. "Uh. I mean, yes. Absolutely. I was...just wondering how he was doing, you know? Man, it's been forever."
"John is one of the pioneers of the movement out here," she tells you. "His work has been invaluable, and so full of joy."
"Who's John?" Karkat wants to know. He's still curled up on your lap.
"An old friend of mine, kid. A very old friend."
You are not surprised to find that the suites C. Fef has reserved for the whole tribe of you are ludicrously fancy. You are also totally unable to prevent yourself from jumping on the beds, which is a Bad Example as evidenced by the fact that Sol and Karkat immediately also start bouncing.
Catching Karkat before he can make himself sick again, you sit on the edge of the bed and pet his horns until he quits whining that he wants to bounce and just purrs instead. Bro flops down on the other bed, takes off his shades, and rubs at his face. "Our Peixes and Dr. Z are sharing a room. Guess it's official."
"Oh boy, we have whirlwind workplace romance as well as all this other drama!" You stroke a thumb down the little curve of Karkat's left horn. "Do we have to do sociable shit tonight or can we just, like, order room service and crash?"
"My vote's on room service," Bro says, but just then there's a knock and the door opens slightly to reveal Jade. "Sup?"
"Playing musical-hotel-rooms," she says, somewhere between fond and exasperated. "Guess who wants to room with you, Dave Strider."
You sigh. Sol climbs onto the other bed and looks thoughtful. "So where's Bro gonna sleep?"
"Jake said he's okay with him sharing the room. So I'm the odd one out. Right now Cronus and Karkat and Sol are next door to you guys--"
"Wanna stay with Dave," Karkat says into your shirt. He's got a death-grip on you. Okay, you kind of understand, he's little and he's just had an astonishing experience of flying on a great big jet and his stomach probably doesn't feel all that good and everything here is new and maybe kind of terrifying. You can dig it.
"Well...fuck, Jade, I dunno, what do you want to do?"
"It'th okay," Sollux says, unexpectedly. "I mean, if Jade wantth to share nectht door with me. I don't mind."
"Yeah?" All three of you look at him.
"Thure. Jade'th cool."
You are way too tired to be playing Morality Police about little kids and grown women as roommates. "Bro?"
"I can switch, sure." He says it just a little too fast. Oh darn, he gets time alone in a room with Jake Harley and a fantastic bed?
"You're a prince among men, dude," you tell him, and he flips you off.
It's almost like the early days, when Karkat was so tiny and you'd been worried about him all the time: he clings to you and refuses to be unpeeled to let you eat room-service (on the house, C. Fef had assured you all) so you have to try and maneuver knife and fork and the best steak of your life with him attached to you like a growth. It's still the best steak of your life, and when you're nearly done he consents to nibbling a very little bit of it, and promptly decides he is hungry after all. He gets the rest of your potatoes, too, and you let him have a little of your chocolate mousse.
Cronus is very quiet, just watching whatever movie's on TV, picking at his own dinner. "You gotta eat, dude," you tell him.
"Not all that hungry."
"Eat it anyway. Keep up your strength for the morrow."
"Fuck off, Strider."
"Hey, easy with the language in front of teeny-weeny ears, yo."
He takes in a breath as if he's about to retort, but just wriggles further back against the pillows and pushes rice round his plate. You resolve to have words with him just as soon as you can get Karkat to go to sleep (the extra pillows from both beds more than suffice for a pile more luxurious than he's ever known).
As it happens, you don't get a chance: he disappears into the bathroom for a very long time, long enough that you're about to go bang on the door and ask questions, but then you hear the shower running. Karkat is drooping in your arms and you let Cronus use up a decent fraction of the hotel's hot water while you sing Karkles the chorus to Sonne a couple times, and get him settled in his palatial pillow-heap. Sie ist der hellste Stern von allen, und wird nicht vom Himmel fallen...
Eventually Cronus emerges, damp and looking rather washed-out, wearing pajamas. You stay up long enough to make sure Karkat is really asleep, and then go brush your teeth and crawl wearily under the covers.
It's three A.M. when your finely tuned bullshit radar, or possibly movement in the room, wakes you. The other bed is empty, the sliding doors to the balcony are closed, but it's bright enough with moonlight outside for you to clearly see Ampora leaning on the railing with a cigarette in his fingers, shoulders hunched like folded wings. He's glowing. God damn it, you think, and get out of bed, careful not to wake Karkat.
"The hell do you think you're doing?" you hiss, closing the door behind you. He jumps, and starts to cough, and you have to thump him on the back to help him get it under control. "Where did you even get that?"
"Bummed it offa someone." He leans heavily on the balcony, head drooping. Smoke curls gently up through the sides of his shirt, and you are reminded of the first time you met him, in Dr. Z's office. "'S a fuckin menthol. I hate menthols."
You twitch it out of his hand and toss the smouldering butt over the balcony, a tiny red eye diminishing in the night. "Cronus, seriously, what the fuck?"
"I'm scared, okay? I'm fuckin petrified. Needed somethin for my nerves." He's still doing that hunching thing, the one you really dislike. You put your arm around his shoulders, and he stays stiff and awkward for a long moment before clinging to you hard enough to hurt.
"...oof, jesus, ease up on the ribs, man," you manage, and he does stop squeezing you quite so hard, but he isn't letting go. You hug him back. "What're you scared of?"
"Everythin." His voice is muffled in your shoulder. "Seein the others. I didn't exactly cover myself with glory last time these assholes saw me. An'....Eridan. Fuck, he must be growin up. All...not a complete an utter fuckup."
"I dunno about that, the picture I saw looked like a dude who needed to be told blue stripy scarves don't go with purple sweaters," you tell him, and are rewarded with a little sniffly laugh. "C. Fef said he was looking forward to seeing you. And you're all stylin' now anyway, right? New clothes, new hair, kind of newish attitude."
"It won't work. They're gonna just...see through alla that shit an look at me."
"Yeah, they are." You run a thumb down one of his horns. "That is exactly what they're gonna do. So chill out, Ampora. There's something there worth seeing."
He looks at you, searchingly. The violet spangles of his bioluminescence are very bright. He is totally, completely alien, and yet you know him. You hold his gaze steadily, and after what feels like a whole goddamn minute he just looks down and nods slightly. "Okay."
"Good. Go back to bed, it's butts o'clock and we gotta be sociable tomorrow."
In the morning Karkat wakes you, jumping up and down on the bed and going "Dave Dave Dave Dave" until you groan and open your eyes and wish you could fold time round you to get a couple more hours of sleep. "I'm up, I'm up, kid, quit it with the acrobatics." Cronus is...already up, apparently: his bed is empty and you can hear the shower running. Huh. You really hope he's gonna be okay, today, but lacking handfuls of Xanax there's not a fuckton you can do for the guy.
Jade knocks on the door. "Dave? I got coffee from room service."
"Come the hell in, in that case." You scrub at your face with both hands and look up at her in wordless gratitude: the Lady with the Latte. "You guys sleep all right?"
"I had this weird dream that I was being slowly buried in a big warm cloud," Jade says, and sits on the side of your bed, fielding a ballistic Karkat as he flings himself at her. "Then I realized it was just the bed. I could really get used to beds like this."
"Seriously." You take a swig of coffee, burn your mouth, and swear. "Anyone know what we're...actually scheduled to be doing today?"
"C. Fef sent an email," she says. "We don't have to be anywhere for a little while, but she's got brunch ordered. I bet there's gonna be mimosas."
"Mimosas?" Karkat wants to know. He's wrapped himself up in Jade's hair and is sitting on her lap like a small nubby-horned gnome. You reach out and tickle a foot; he squirms, giggling.
"Excuses for people to drink champagne in the morning," you tell him. "I could go for one myself. How's Sol?"
"He's good, he's apparently...can you even play Minecraft on an iPad?" She looks fondly down at Karkat. "Engrossed, anyhow. What about Cronus?"
"Making himself beautiful," you say, nodding at the bathroom. "Seems to take a while. He's a bit...apprehensive."
"Don't blame him." Jade gives Karkat a last cuddle and plops him on your lap. "I would be, too. Hell, I kind of am. This all...snowballed, didn't it?"
"Really did." You remember sitting in the back of Zahhak's car again, on the way back from Sol's ex-owner's place, thinking: god, what have we started, where will this end, what are we doing?
"Snowball," Karkat says, and reaches for your coffee. You fend him off gently. "Dave, we meet people today?"
"Yup. Cronus's...cousin, I guess, and my friend John, and some other people. They want to talk about how to help trolls."
"Take us home," he says, as if this is obvious. "You an' Bro did."
"Yeah, but then what? I mean, you guys gotta...like, go to school. See doctors instead of vets. Not have to be...fuck, licensed. Not be pets."
Karkat doesn't seem bothered. "You fix it," he says. "Dave fix things."
"Dave is out of his depth on this one." You give Jade a helpless look. She leans over and ruffles Karkat's hair.
"Dave and his friends will fix it," she tells him. "All of us. Together."
"I tell how."
Your eyes meet Jade's. "You will?"
"I tell." Karkat seems to be satisfied with that somewhat enigmatic pronunciation, and settles back on your lap with the air of somebody who has sorted things out.
"...Well, okay then," Jade says through a smile like sunlight. "Guess we're pretty much set. I gotta go make sure the others are awake, Dave."
"Bang real hard on Bro's door."
"Way ahead of you." She gets up, and you put an arm round Karkat and drink your coffee and wonder, not for the first time, what is going on inside that little curly head.
There are, in fact, mimosas. There is everything you could possibly imagine for brunch, and some stuff you can't even identify. This is going rather better than you had anticipated. For one thing, John's there.
He looks...like his dad, yeah, like he had in your dream, but still the same derpy-intense smile, the same blue eyes, the same goddamn teeth you remember from when you were kids. Teeth like Jade’s, big and awkward. He has a couple of little trolls herded about his ankles, and that should be amazing, but it isn't; it's just right. Jade gets the first hug, it’s strong enough to lift him off his feet, and then Jade gets the babies, and then you and John are face-to-face for the first time in ages.
"Dude," you say, smooth as ever. "Long time no see."
"Dave," and he's beaming, and you take off your sunglasses and you meet his eyes properly and then he's hugging you and you're hugging him and the years fall away like leaves in autumn, and everything is suddenly better.
He introduces you to his little charges, and then you introduce him to Karkat, and John's face just lights up. "You know the story, right?" you ask.
“Yeah, Jade told me everything.” He crouches to meet him, hands cupping his knees. “Hey there, little man! I’m John.”
Karkat gives him a considering look, and then grins. "Hi, John." You feel absurdly relieved, as if John's passed some kind of test.
He grins first at Karkat, and then at you as he scoops the little troll into both arms to sit on his scrawny hip.
“So you’re Karkat! Jade’s told me a lot about you. How do you like California? Is it hot? I think it’s too hot. Washington’s cooler, you should come sometime.”
John lifts his chin to you, bushy eyebrows near lifting off his face. Karkat looks around the hotel meeting room, or whatever it is, where the long table has been laid out for brunch, and thoughtfully tugs on a curl. "Squishy," he says at last. You have to smile.
"The beds, man. Seriously, these beds are fucking incredible. He was bouncing all over the place." You aren't saying are you okay. Probably he knows that you aren't saying it.
“Oh man, I know. I went to bed last night and woke up as base camp of kid mountain.”
Maybe John’s not as oblivious as you think. He sets Karkat back down, squeezes his tiny grey hand.
“Hey, Karkat, you should go meet my kids--they’d be thrilled to meet you. They’re hanging out by the chocolate fountain.”
For a moment your foundling looks uncharacteristically shy, and then glances up at you; you still don't have your shades on, and it's bright enough in the room for you to catch that weird red glint again in his eyes. It's unnerving, and it's also slightly cool. Whatever he sees in your face seems to meet with his approval, and he trots off to meet the only other little trolls, other than Sollux, he's probably ever seen.
“By evening they’ll have plotted a way to overthrow half the government,” John muses, crossing his arms as if to alleviate the sense of emptiness without a child in them.
“Dave, how are you? I mean. Wow. You’re shorter than I thought.”
At least he still didn’t have tact.
You have to laugh. "You're taller than I thought. Fuck, how long has it even been, man? I didn't even know you had a sister until Jade mentioned you. The Harley-Egberts are all over the fucking place." You're skirting around the question, and you know it. How are you? You're completely unsure of the foundations of your whole outlook, is how. "This shit is...it's like..."
Bro had told you about synchronicity, hadn't he? Or had that been Zahhak? Coincidences piling up on coincidences. That you and your childhood buddy should both find yourselves caring for trolls, at the same time, on opposite sides of the country; that things could, possibly, change. That you might have somehow been meant to walk that particular route back from the club, in the rainy dark. "It's weird," you finish, lamely.
“Yeah, we seem to be everywhere.” John catches on to what you mean. “Oh... Yeah. It’s not what I expected either.”
He doesn’t quite look at you, eyes trained on his little charges, who have all welcomed Karkat into the fold of whispering and giggling.
You watch them too, for a moment, and then turn back to your old friend. "Dude. Uh. You. Are you okay? I...saw that video. The, uh. The courtroom." Fuck it, you've gone through too much to dance around this shit now.
“Aw, man, Dave, you saw that?” He grimaces. “I thought they finally figured out it violated terms of service or something. I’m sorry you had to see that.” As if actually experiencing it was somehow not as fucking terrible. He rolls back one sleeve to display the marks, two little puncture wounds, now long healed over.
“She left quite a mark on me, didn’t she?” He laughs sadly. “In more ways than one. Than I’ll probably ever know, really. I wish you could have met her! She would’ve liked you, I think.”
"I dunno, man. Seemed to me like she was a one-dude troll. Fuck, that came out wrong." You rub at your face. "But...she got you into this, huh. I don't...even know what the hell we're doing, John. I never did. I just...like, you know, someone hands you a spinning plate and you don't ask where to put it down, you just...keep it spinning the best you can?" Not one of your better analogies. "Can I have a mimosa?"
Down the room, you can tell that Cronus and Eridan Ampora are finding it somewhat awkward to encounter one another. You resolutely look away from them. Cronus can deal with his own shit. This is yours.
“I don’t think any of us really know what we’re doing, you know?” He shrugs with one shoulder. “I mean, I definitely didn’t. I signed up for puppies and stuff and--well. It’s not what I meant to have happen. But I think it was better.”
He tightens a hand over the old scar.
“I think it was better, despite everything. Maybe because of everything. I was... Lucky. I was really lucky. I think you are, too. Who are we to say?”
"Word to that, man." You bite your lip for a moment, and then you see the younger--if taller--Ampora fling his arms around Cronus and hug him tight enough to elicit a squawk, and then you just grin. "Dude. John. It is so stupidly good to see you. And...yeah. I think we both were, and are."
Fuck it, who cares if anyone's watching. You pull your old friend into another hug: he's warm, human, he smells good, you can feel his heart beating close to yours. It's something you haven't really paid attention to, all those times you hugged Bro or Jade or whoever. But it's...undeniably nice, just to hold and be held.
You let go before it gets really awkward.
Or you would, if he hadn’t gotten his wristwatch caught on the back of your shirt. “Ugh. Fuck...shit. Hold on.”
If there is anyone destined to spoil the Hallmark card moments of life it's probably John Egbert. Both Feferis seem pleased enough, smiling smug, identical smiles like a pair of Cheshire cats. The older Peixes gazes on the Amporas fondly, with a sigh capable of mussing even the most sprayed of hair. She breaks from her sister to herd the children. Enough hugging, time for food.
Feeding a bunch of grown-up people is difficult enough, let alone two armfuls of kids. John has already rolled up his other sleeve, ready to corral the fuck out of these kids like a champion cattleherd.
Okay, you have to laugh at that, and while you're laughing you're being organized. There are...wow. There are eggs in at least three different configurations, and sausage with named parts of animal, and bacon and mushrooms and hash browns and pancakes and cereal and if you're Sollux, a toasted bagel with ridiculous amounts of honey. And mimosas. You are grateful for those, in particular. There's not enough active ingredient in them to actually do much other than mellow out your caffeine buzz from the early-morning room service brew, but it's still welcome, specially when you have another one.
Over the meal you talk to C. Fef. Eridan is sitting opposite you, on her other side, and you can't help studying him between bites. He really does look like what Cronus might have been with a hell of a lot more square meals and fewer nights on the street, and the purple lock suits him--although honestly you would advise him to ditch the hipster scarf. You would have advised Cronus to do the same, but you think probably wild horses could not part him and his faintly iridescent dark-purple jacket from his batik neckwear. Eridan looks...honestly, seriously, straight-up glad to see Cronus, especially an ambulatory and not obviously expiring Cronus. It's interesting. You vow to pay more attention to it later. After the talking.
The whole thing is really a study in siblings. Both Peixes girls hold their forks the same way, their pinky delicately balancing the end. The English-Harley team all have the same hilarious way of eating like rampant puppies, though John’s youngest needs help coaxing to be fed. He’s patient, and pleased with his charge when she manages a few bites. The chatter is joyful, punctuated with laughter. From time to time, Eridan and C. Fef bump their knuckles together, twine their fingers.
Karkat is sitting between Bro and Eridan, and is being guided to make his own crepes with the stack of pancakes on his plate and the heap of fruit and similar on the plate beside it: he's approaching the task like an engineer appraising a tricky dam build. Your Feferi and Dr. Z are looking stupidly across the table at one another, and Jade and Jake are entertaining John and John's kids.
The little gestures between Eridan and C. Fef don't pass you by, and you blink for a moment before thinking: ok, why the fuck not? Cronus must....kind of really extra-crazy-super-envy his cousin for that one, but Cronus could maybe learn from his example--it ain't impossible for a troll to actually achieve redrom with a human.
You fill up on the kind of stuff you never get at home--smoked salmon, crazy-good sausages, amazing butter on bread that has all this birdseed shit in it--and just let the experience wash over you.
Later, an hour, maybe two hours later, you're sitting on what the hotel is pleased to call a Chaise Lounge in your raggedy-ass bathing suit, watching Jade and Jake in the hot tub with the kids. They squeal at the temperature before sort of going all floppy and demanding to be cuddled, and then get fussy again and need to be taken by Bro into the kiddie pool just steps away.
Karkat has made friends--or perhaps commandeered--the other troll kids, other than Sollux, who's staying in the shade and watching. They seem to do what he says, at least. You watch him marshalling his tiny force to swarm Mount Jake and demand strawberries from the tray of fresh fruit on the lounge-side tables. John's beside you, his glasses not all that different from the coke-bottle squares he wore back in the day.
He’s trying his best not to eyeball the Peixes, who look as if they were born to wander off swimsuit advertisements. The Amporas are doing their best to not notice them either, hunkered down and fiddling with each others’ clothes; you're reminded of birds preening each other. From time to time they link fingers, bonk foreheads together, lock horns. Meanwhile, both Peixes observe Doctor Z doing goddamn laps in a wetsuit that would please most Olympians. The elder Feferi seems to be congratulating the younger on his glutes.
“Like. Okay. Is he for real? The doctor? I mean, I think a thousand Vanity Fair photographers just died of yearning.”
"Oh, he's real." Feferi grins at her sister. "Believe me. I know, he looks like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but if you actually get to know him he has the rudiments of a sense of humor! And he's really, really, really good with kids. And animals."
Beyond them, Dr. Zahhak emerges from the pool, a romance-novel cover artist's magnum opus, and flips back the heavy mass of his wet hair exactly like--it has to be said--the Little Mermaid. He pads over to the tables, dripping absently, and brings a tray of fruit over to the sisters. Because it's California, and he isn't at work, and he's in love, and dammit, he can do silly things once in a very long while.
Eridan is apparently not to be outdone. He flares his fins, tosses aside his dainty robe in a dramatic fashion and dives equally dramatically into the pool, his fins glistening. This proves to be a terrible idea, as in the next moment he’s scrabbling at the side and trying to get out, coughing and looking far more like a soaked rat than a handsome seatroll. Presumably gills and chlorine aren't the best of friends. He creeps back to Cronus, grumbling and muttering to himself.
John does his best not to laugh, itching idly at the tattoo on his chest. It’d be tacky if you didn’t know it was so damn sentimental to him.
“So, uh,” he begins, but then just leaves it there.
You also try not to laugh, but appreciate the tiny little flicker of a smile on Cronus's face before he wraps his cousin in a towel and rubs his back. He isn't hunching. His earfins are as high as you've ever seen them, and he...pff, yeah, he's sparkling, a little, in the sun. You don't think you need to worry about Cronus, not right now.
"Yeah," you say, turning all your attention back to John. "Uh. It's. I don't know what's gonna happen next, man, and I think we're here to find that out, but...I don't even know where to start." In the hot tub, Karkat has succeeded in bending Jake to his will, and is making him be a giant shark while everyone else, including Jade, pretends to be mermaids or fellow pirates.
“Maybe there isn’t any specific way to start?” John says, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Maybe we just keep going--because if there’s a start, there’s an end. And maybe things like this don’t just end.”
It’s unbelievably, unflinchingly corny, but, then again, so is John.
The thing about corn, you have gathered over the past months, is that corn is relative. And while what he just said is Hallmark-level corny, it's also true.
"Kinda want to believe that, dude. When I found Karkles...I...I didn't even, you know, think. Just acted. I don't know why I walked down that particular alley that particular night, I just did. And from then on I don't know how much choice I even had in what ended up happening. And if there's that much force behind something--force enough to make a meeting like this happen...well, uh. Fuck. Guess I'ma have to just go along with it."
You watch the troll you'd scooped out of a box months ago imperiously commanding Jake Harley to turn hard a-starboard. You didn't teach him that. Probably Bro didn't teach him that. It was Jake, or the TV, or Sol's iPad. You didn't teach him...half the shit he knows, and still when you watch him happily whacking Jake's head with his palms and demanding to go faster, go faster, you think back to that one weird night where his eyes had glinted and he'd told you to fix Mister Purple, and he had been right.
"John," you say. "What about trolls with powers we don't know about?"
“They told me Vriska had mind powers too.” It's the first time he's said her name. “Something about possessing people? I never saw it. And then the little one’s psionics...I had one that seemed to know the future for a while.”
He rests his chin on his other hand.
“But really, I think it’s mostly bullshit. I mean, psionics, no, but. But they’re kids all the same, Dave. I don’t care what fucking powers they have. Geez, though, think. Soon they’ll all be miles ahead of us. It’s awesome.”
A wry, fond smile. But there’s sadness behind his eyes, and it’s all too easy to guess what’s going on behind those thick frames. Things the girl he cared about wouldn’t have. But he doesn’t seem to dwell on it, and scoots his pool-chair over with an unholy squeak.
“But, y'know, I don’t really mind them owning our asses all over.”
"Pff." You smile, even though it's against the Strider Code, your mouth curling up despite yourself. "Me either. I think maybe they're owed a couple good old-fashioned ownings. Sol....shit, I mean, he could read when he came to us, but he's doing things with that iPad Bro and I don't even get, and Karkat's been all extra weirdly omniscient recently. I just. I want to. Not screw them up?"
He laughs at you, but it’s not unkind. “Dave, you’re not screwing them up. They’re fine. They’re here! They’re happy, healthy, they’re alive, Dave!”
“They all have a great future, and so do we. We have to learn. From what I was taught learning does involve fucking up a bit.”
From what you were taught, learning involved rooftop strifing and home-made sutures, but you guess maybe it comes to the same thing. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. But, like. Your people here, and us on the other coast. We have to, like. Present a unified front." Your childhood friend's eyes are extremely blue, and you can't help seeing again that awful fucking video. "Team Egbert-Strider, right?" You reach for his hand.
Instead of a handshake, he curls his hand into a little fist, bumping your knuckles together. “Team Trolls! Eh, that sounds like a really bad college team.”
"It really does." You duck, snickering, and bonk your knuckles and his again. "Whatever. We got game, right? C. Fef didn't fly us across the damn country for nothing." You're not sure what the deal is with jet lag on this journey, but you're feeling uncharacteristically mellow and relaxed, possibly because a whole lot of other people are watching your kids for you. "John?"
“What up?” he cheeps.
"Is it, like, okay, that I don't know what the flying fuck I'm doing?" you ask, and shut your eyes behind your shades. "Cause I don't. I was hoping you did, so you could tell me. But...I guess...we haven't messed shit up too bad so far. Maybe that's a good sign."
Karkat is showing two of John's kids how to...shit, he's showing them a basic Bonetti defense with a butter knife from the sideboard, what the hell, you are about to lurch off your incredibly comfortable chaise-longue and take it away from him, but maybe this is the kind of thing a parent, or guardian, needs to let happen.
John takes note of the shenanigans, and gestures for his youngest to come to him. She’s a little violet, like Eridan, and wastes no time toddling over and climbing into his lap. He welcomes her, shelters her head with his hands. He speaks over her bowed horns, humor in his voice.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever known what they’re doing beyond loving them, letting them be loved, an’ letting them love others, I guess.”
A little way away, Eridan and Cronus both have their feet in the water, speaking low. The elder Feferi swims to her troll like a rippling sea serpent, tugging on his ankle. Dr. Z has your Feferi curled in the crook of his arm. You look back at Karkat, sturdy and real and undeniable, and wonder again where all this will end up taking you. How much is, inevitably, going to come to rest on your kid's small shoulders. You can't fix the world, but maybe--with help, and luck, and saving laughter--you can try to make it better.
"I tell how," he'd said, this morning. That red glint in the depths of his eyes. "I tell."
You think you believe him.
That's it: UFUT is done.
Thank you all who've followed me this far along this weird fucked-up journey. Thank you to all the people who took the time to tell me that you liked this, and to all the people who've done such fantastic art for it, or recorded it as podfic. You all rock.
Thanks in particular to saccharineSylph, who is one of my favorite people in all the world, and who wrote her John into this chapter. (UFUT and Loophole are now well and truly married.)
Ask UFUT will continue to run as long as there's any interest in it, and it's likely there will be some more pieces in this verse, but at this time and in this place, for this narrative, it's THE END.